The two computer analysts, one from New Jersey, the other from New York, met by chance 10 years ago and have been together ever since.

But for Columbia residents Steven B. Jacobs and John M. LeBedda, a decade-long relationship in which each describes the other as a "spouse" does not a marriage make -- at least not under Maryland law.

The finding, which came in a ruling last month by the Howard County Office of Human Rights, highlights a problem that homosexuals continue to face, even in communities with strong human rights laws, gay rights activists say.

They note that married heterosexuals have legal rights to each other's pensions and inheritances, enjoy special income tax advantages and benefit from discounts on a wide range of services, such as health insurance.

But because no state recognizes homosexual marriages, gay couples are not entitled to the same benefits. A move to grant the spousal benefits to gay employes of the city of San Francisco was thwarted when Mayor Diane Feinstein vetoed legislation passed by the City Council.

"We can't get the benefits because we're not legally married," LeBedda said, "but we can't be legally married."

The Howard case was the first of a series of legal actions that are being filed around the country by a gay activist group as part of a campaign to establish equal rights for gay couples.

The National Gay Rights Advocates, a San Francisco group underwriting the effort, is involved in a similar suit in California and may get involved in a suit in the District, said lawyer Susan Silber, who represented Jacobs and LeBedda.

"It's just absolutely an economic survivial issue," Silber said. "We are at an early stage of the development of this area of law. By picking our fights carefully from state to state we hope to eventually end up with a landmark ruling."

The Howard County duo filed a complaint with the Office of Human Rights last year after the American Automobile Association of Maryland refused to offer them the same membership discount it offers to married couples.

The complaint charged that the action violated provisions of Howard County's human rights law that prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and marital status. Howard and Montgomery counties are the only jurisdictions in the state with such laws.

"The issue was whether a couple that has lived together for 10 years and considers themselves committed is entitled to the same rights as other married couples," said San Francisco lawyer David P. Kincaid, who was involved in the case. "I don't see anyway you can legally separate them."

Lawyers for the AAA argued in a legal brief that Jacobs and LeBedda were not qualified to bring the complaint because their relationship did not have a "marital status" recognized by state law.

AAA lawyers also asserted that discrimination based on sexual orientation did not occur because both men were offered the same type of membership that is offered to single, heterosexual men.

In a 10-page ruling, the human rights office agreed: " . . . Since under Maryland law complainants are incapable of having a marital status, they can not be discriminated against as a couple on the basis of their marital status."

Neither one, it added, could claim injury on the basis of sexual orientation because neither was denied a privilege or treated differently than "any similarly situated hetero-sexual . . . "

The Jacobs-LeBedda case was harmed by a ruling last June in a Maryland Court of Appeals case involving an unmarried heterosexual couple, Silber said.

The decision, upholding a housing cooperative ban on unrelated adults living together, clearly established that state antidiscrimination laws do not give unmarried couples the same rights as married couples, Silber said.

"The path is somewhat blocked in Maryland with this kind of case," but the District's human rights law is ripe for a legal test, she said.

The lawyer said that two gay women with a small child were turned down for family health insurance and are considering suing their insurance company.

"We consider ourselves family," said LeBedda. "We don't see any material differences between our household [and] the households of all the married couples around us."