The hefty man with the television camera has wound his way among the couches and dining room table, avoided the potted plants and even skirted the two bird cages and three aquariums. But the low-hanging chandelier is too much for him, and the camera leaves the lights clanking and swinging as he attempts to get a good angle on the two young men who live here.

For the pair of reporters wedged into this one-room apartment it is obvious that at any moment something may come crashing to the floor, but the residents do not seem to notice. They have become used to opening their lives and home to strangers and bulky electronic equipment.

"If two men can live in a small apartment like this with all these fish and birds, they're certainly ready to get married," Patrick Gill says as the cameraman negotiates a corner.

That is a statement some would doubtless contest, but Gill delivers it with light and practiced ease, as if he has said it before -- which he probably has. For Gill and his lover, Craig Dean, the quips and comebacks have become as easily retrieved as an often-used phone number. They have been telling their story over and over for almost two months now, and in the end the story is not very complicated: They want to get married. They will do what they can to achieve that end.

Last November, after 4 1/2 years together, Dean, 27, and Gill, 23, attempted to get a District of Columbia marriage license. Like other gay activists who support the right to marry, Dean and Gill say that in addition to the societal respect and recognition that marriage bestows, they want the legal advantages of civil marriage, such as automatic inheritance, the right to decide on medical care for each other, and the other responsibilities and freedoms gained by being someone's next of kin.

"It all started because Pat and I love each other," says Dean. "A marriage license is important because it's going to protect our relationship within and without. By not fully asserting ourselves and trying to get the license, we would be agreeing with society that our relationship is less than other marriages. We would be giving in to our own homophobia."

But after an initial slip by a city clerk, who unthinkingly listed Gill as the female half of the couple, their request was refused. Soon after, Dean, a lawyer, filed a suit against the District that asks for a marriage license and $1.25 million in compensatory and punitive damages. The suit claims that because D.C. law does not explicitly forbid marriage between people of the same sex, the city must grant them a license. Earlier this month the city filed a motion to dismiss the case on the grounds that the D.C. Council did not intend to authorize same-sex marriages when it wrote the District's marriage legislation.

The fuss over the case has been louder and more persistent than either man expected. The two have been in USA Today and on the wires. They have explained themselves to Oprah Winfrey and Phil Donahue. In the process, they have been touched by acts of support from strangers, troubled by the anger of a few family members, and stung by criticism of their tactics from several national gay legal organizations.

And thanks to the heady lights of cameras and whir of tape recorders, they have bloomed into self-conscious Public Figures, suddenly savvy in the ways of the media and increasingly certain that they have a place on the national stage. They send out press releases. They talk about a "community looking to us for leadership" and "the eyes of the nation" focusing on their case. Dean suggested recently to a local TV news reporter that he conduct an interview at home rather than in a studio because it would "humanize" the story. Both are given to dropping such lines as, "It's like Oprah said... ."

"We've set a goal for ourselves and that is to get married," says Dean, "so it seems the media attention is a venue to reach our goal. Also, we're causing a great amount of consciousness-raising in the American public, I think. It just happens we're two men involved instead of a man and a woman. We're trying to show our relationship is no different from any other -- or is as much like any other relationship as they can be alike."

They are attractive, extremely earnest and utterly nonconfrontational. They are also young, and their voices have the slightly awkward certainty of their age. Dean, a graduate of Georgetown Law School, does most of the talking, but by now their phrases are so familiar to each other that they share them interchangeably, and what Dean says during one interview will come out of Gill's mouth in another. They like to say that life has not changed much -- "We still make dinner, take out the garbage and clean the house," says Dean -- but their public conversation and manners seem so shaped by their sense of a new-found role that it is difficult to discern the ordinary life. They are spokesmen now, their demeanor says, and they sit in their apartment with the conscious formality of experts conducting a panel discussion.

That they are proud of their stand and nourished in some strong and complicated way by the public attention is obvious. Like most gay men and lesbians, Dean and Gill can remember years in which the struggle was not to reveal the reality of their lives, but to hide it. Like members of many other minorities, they can tell tales of prejudice and acts of sudden and unpredictable intimidation. To the extent that they have not been accepted in the past -- whether by family or friends or the culture at large -- the fact that thousands of people are now willing to listen to them seems a welcome act of reparation.

"I can really hold my head high," says Gill. "I don't feel I have to hide anything anymore. Everyone knows not just who I am but what I'm about. I'm an open book, and the fact that I'm gay doesn't make me any different from anyone else."

After meeting in a New York gay bar they cultivated a long-distance relationship until moving in together more than a year ago, when Gill transferred from the University of Richmond to Marymount College. Bill Gallagher, a friend of Dean's since both attended the State University of New York, Stony Brook, says, "They're not very interested in partying or going out or living it up. They're both kind of like homebodies."

Homebodies. Regular guys who collect fish and play video games. What they would like people to realize, they say, is that this is a committed relationship -- that gay men have serious, committed relationships. They know that many people will not believe them, and they punctuate their conversation with definitive statements such as Gill's comment, "We're staying together for the rest of our life."

Last November, Dean and Gill were worried about negative reaction from strangers, but they say there has been none. The same day he filed the suit, however, Dean was laid off from his job as a lawyer for a Washington firm. He had informed his bosses about his legal plans and there seemed to be no trouble, but although he was told he was being let go for purely business reasons, he says in a voice heavy with suggestion, "The timing seems really odd." Now he's looking for a new job.

For many people, allowing same-sex couples to enjoy the rights and status of marriage is no doubt an idea that seems somewhere between offensive and ridiculous. Yet these two men have launched a campaign to be united in what many still think of as "holy wedlock," and they have come across not as revolutionaries but merely the latest pair of undramatic people who happen to have a dramatic cause. Although both say they have a history of standing up for their rights, neither Dean nor Gill initially seems the sort of person drawn to public activism, which may partly explain their ability to appeal to audiences that might be expected to oppose them.

"I think we don't fit any particular stereotype," says Gill, who works in marketing for a national retail firm. "We're everyman -- except we're gay. We don't dress in any particular way. We're not overly conservative or liberal. People see we both have normal jobs. We're a valid part of society. We're taxpayers."

What they are not is experienced members of the community of gay-rights activists, a fact that may have hurt them. Their decision to raise the question of gay marriage has worried some national leaders who say they believe the District is the wrong site for such a battle.

"I feel fervent support for their goals, but their tactics are shortsighted," says Tom Stoddard, executive director of Lambda Legal Defense Fund and the couple's most outspoken critic. "The District of Columbia is probably the worst jurisdiction in the country for seeking action like this. Both Congress and the Supreme Court have oversight over legal developments in the District, and neither forum has shown itself to be welcoming to lesbians and gay men in the past. Better to establish a favorable precedent in other jurisdictions and then come back to the District.

"What happens to these two men will affect every other gay man and lesbian in the United States. They therefore have a responsibility to confer with their colleagues."

Dean, however, sees no reason to allow someone else in some other jurisdiction to file a suit that matters so deeply to him. Stoddard's criticism enrages him, and he says the only truly distressing reaction to his suit has come from groups such as Lambda. "I assumed I would get support from gay legal institutions," he says. "I think it's outrageous that people who call themselves activists and leaders are acting like a gay mafia to shut us out."

He says that he did consult with a number of other gay organizations before filing the suit. "Are we supposed to call every gay organization in the country?" he asks, and says of Stoddard, "I don't know how big his ego is, but he's not the ultimate legal authority."

It is the classic conflict between an established organization -- a creature of strategy meetings and memos -- and an impassioned individual. "Lambda has a history of only taking on cases that are velvet-lined -- clearly winnable," says Dean. For Dean and Gill, however, the fight is almost more important than the result. They claim they expect to win and say they will appeal the case through the legal system if need be, but if they lose at the highest level the men will still have the satisfaction of having stood up for themselves and their lives.

The debate over whether marriage is a desirable or useful right for gay couples continues within the gay community, but for these two, there is no debate. "As I was raised, marriage was a sacrament," says Gill, the son of two Catholic Irish immigrants who live in Queens. "My parents had that and I want to have that."

Of course, the Roman Catholic Church is not likely to bestow that sacrament on Gill, and his parents themselves remain severely uncomfortable with his desire to draw comparisons between his gay relationship and their heterosexual one. "They think we've blown it all out of proportion," says Gill, "and they were afraid for us. My mother has said she's trying to deal with it, trying to understand it, but it's very difficult. My father is still in a state of shock. It's been a second coming out for them."

For Dean's mother on Long Island the thought of the publicity was terrifying, he says, but now she calls him up periodically to report on neighbors who have seen him on TV and confided to her that they too have a gay son or daughter.

The men say that if they are not allowed to marry in the eyes of the state, they will hold a religious ceremony marking their commitment to each other.

"There are so many societal pressures on a gay or lesbian couple," says Dean. "The running joke in our community is that when we say we've been together for five years, that's like 20 years in straight life."

He laughs at the joke and so does Gill, two spokesmen able to take a brief moment off from their serious duty.