If you've ever caught any of the episodes from the third season of BET's College Hill, a reality show about eight black college students, you probably know who Ray Cunningham is. Yes, he's the guy who poured his stash of alcohol all over the floor during a heated argument with a roommate who had tried to steal it from him, but more importantly, Cunningham is the College Hill student who let the world know that he is gay in the first episode of the third season.
''I was nervous about coming out on the show,'' says Cunningham, a 24-year-old native of Richmond who now lives in Los Angeles. ''I was nervous about how my family, friends and America was going to perceive me. But my show producer said, 'There's going to be some kid, some youth out there watching the show, and you're going to be an inspiration to [them] -- that you can be in college, you can be black, you can be evolved and still be a positive gay male.'''
That was over a year ago. Cunningham is now getting ready for his homecoming to Washington, where he will serve as the moderator of this year's ''Youth Life Style Forum -- Let's Talk,'' at 2:30 p.m., Saturday, May 26, at the lower level of the Renaissance M Street Hotel, 1143 New Hampshire Avenue NW. The one-hour discussion is being presented by the Sexual Minority Youth Assistance League (SMYAL), D.C. Concerned Providers and Metro TeenAIDS.
James W. Hawkins, president of D.C. Black Pride's board of directors, says it's essential that young people take advantage of the open-group discussion of a variety of topics, including self-image, the coming out process, HIV/AIDS and health.
''We just want to make sure that the youth are prepared and have all the knowledge they need in order to be able to go out and make informed choices about their careers or their college selections or things of that nature,'' Hawkins says.
''What we want to do is create an environment where youth can come and ask any and every questions they possibly could think of, and be able to, in a very controlled safe place, ask questions about their sexuality, their identity, their image, about going off to college, and about going into the professional world.
''We want to be able to create that safe space for them, all the while going back to giving them the knowledge of sharing HIV and AIDS information, so if they are sexually active, they're making informed choices.''
Cunningham says he suspects many people will want to talk about the coming out process, which he describes as the ''biggest issue'' facing black gay youth today.
''It's difficult now, because for me, the images of gay black people on TV...are always made to look so loud, flamboyant, extroverted and extreme,'' he says, ''but sometimes it's not that serious for everybody.
''Some people are very conservative, some people are very laid-back, and some people think that they're gay, but they might just be questioning youth [who] don't have too much to identify with,'' he continues. ''Also, the way media paints the picture of how gay people are supposed to be -- loud in the club, and drunk and dramatic -- I think it just puzzles them. They're like, 'Do I want to come out and be put in that category?' Coming out is a really big issue.''
While Cunningham's approach of dropping the gay bomb on the third season's opener during his introduction might have seemed casual to viewers, he says it wasn't easy.
''I always tell people the hardest part [about being gay] is not admitting you're gay [to yourself] -- it's actually saying it to someone else.
''I have a really close relationship with my father... and my biggest fear was, after I'm dead and gone, who's going to be here to carry my family name? I wasn't concerned about getting picked on, or getting called names.... I was more concerned about my family, where my family is going to stand as far as me.''
He adds: ''My dad talked to me. We prayed about it, and he said 'If this is the lifestyle you want to live, I respect you, I respect what you do, just always respect your family's last name.'' The fact that my father supports me, he's understanding of it, he still loves me no less, that is more important to me than having a kid and having my name going on.''
The Youth Forum, ''Let's Talk,'' will be held on Saturday, May 26, from 2:30 to 3:30 p.m. at the Renaissance M Street Hotel, 1143 New Hampshire NW, on the lower level, in City Center II.