When several Prince William County parents complained last year to Kemp Mill Records because their teenagers were reading copies of a gay-oriented newspaper picked up from the store's shelves, the chain pulled the free Washington Blade weekly from its suburban outlets.

In years past, the newspapers might have been permanently removed. But the suburban gay community, particularly the recently organized Prince William Gay and Lesbian Association, fought back.

"I ended up getting faxes, letters and phone calls from lots of different {gay} groups and people . . . . They were pretty insistent," said Howard Appelbaum, vice president of the 33-store company. "I made the prudent business decision."

That skirmish yielded but a small victory, gay-rights activists say, but it demonstrated how the gay community has expanded, organized and achieved stronger influence in the Washington suburbs.

At the same time, however, the dispute showed how the increasing visibility of gay people in the suburbs stirs up resistance -- and fear. Acceptance levels, gay people say, are much lower in the suburbs -- particularly in Northern Virginia -- than in the District, where gay groups have been a potent political force for more than a decade and gay residents have established a stronghold in the Dupont Circle area.

Gay people in the suburbs say they are finally coming into their own. Today, thousands of gay men and women are expected to march through Northwest Washington to mark the 15th Annual Gay and Lesbian Pride Day, and huge numbers of them will be traveling to the city from suburban homes.

"We're finally coming out of hibernation," said Bonnie Berger, a Democratic precinct official in Montgomery County and the first openly gay person appointed to the county's Human Relations Commission. "People are realizing it's possible . . . to change where we live to meet our needs."

More than 30 gay groups, most of them social, have sprouted in the suburbs -- nearly 20 since 1987 -- in places as far and different from Dupont Circle as Frederick and Manassas. Gay men and lesbians who live in the suburbs gather for potluck dinners, lectures, worship services in two newly formed parishes, and to film and watch cable television shows produced by, for and about gay people.

District-based gay sports leagues have expanded into the suburbs, including bowling and softball leagues in Silver Spring and Arlington County, and gay people from around the country call in to an Arlington-based computer bulletin board called the Gay and Lesbian Information Bureau.

Gay suburban residents also are pushing for political change, through groups largely invisible to the heterosexual community. Virginians for Justice, a fledgling state gay group that draws much of its membership from Northern Virginia, hired its first Richmond lobbyist during the last legislative session. Prompted by lobbying from gay-rights activists, officials in Montgomery and Howard counties and the cities of Alexandria, Gaithersburg, Takoma Park and Rockville, have passed laws in the last decade outlawing discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

No one knows how large the suburban gay community is, although gay leaders estimate 300,000 people, or roughly 10 percent of the 3.1 million people who live outside Washington in the metropolitan area. Researcher Alfred Kinsey theorized in the 1940s that 10 percent of all Americans are gay.

Gay people who moved to the suburbs say they live there for the same reasons as their heterosexual counterparts -- more affordable housing and a quieter lifestyle. Some gay suburbanites joke that they constantly run into one another at Hechinger hardware stores on Saturday mornings.

"I put myself down in front of the TV like 80 percent of Fairfax County," said Jason Widdon. "D.C. is largely a bar society."

The suburban gay communities have no physical presence comparable to the District's gay-oriented nightclubs, bars and bookstores, in part because of more restrictive laws. In Virginia, for instance, rarely enforced statutes allow state officials to close any liquor-serving establishment if it becomes "a meeting place for . . . homosexuals"; officials say there have been no prosecutions under the law in at least a decade.

Many gay people also say they prefer the anonymity in suburban areas because they sometimes worry about reprisal from neighbors.

Last year, a group of Prince William residents tried -- without success -- to prevent a gay group from using the public library's meeting rooms. Two months ago, Citizens Against Pornography launched a boycott of the cable television company that aired "Gay Fairfax" on its public-access channel.

Gay people "are becoming bolder and bolder, and people are just sitting back and letting it happen," said Richard J. Enrico of Fairfax County's Foundation for Moral Restoration.

More than one-third of the nearly 60 gay suburbanites interviewed for this article said they had been physically harassed, verbally abused or had their property damaged. Two-thirds of them said they did not want their names published.

"People don't want to be on our mailing list because they don't want to be recognized," said Barry Forbes, co-founder of the Fairfax Lesbian and Gay Citizens' Association.

Nevertheless, people who have recently tried to start a suburban gay organization said they have been surprised by the number of people who responded. When a group of gay Takoma Park residents announced in spring 1988 through the Washington Blade that they were starting a monthly brunch group, they were astounded when 40 people showed up. The group's mailings now reach 500 people, organizers said.

Such interest shows "we're looking to our own community for stimulation instead of the District," said Berger, the Montgomery precinct official.

The emergence of gay groups and culture in the Washington suburbs mirrors similar developments nationwide, national gay-rights activists said. "Lesbian and gay Americans are maturing as a social and political community, choosing to come out of the closet and . . . fight for our rights," said Gregory J. King, spokesman for the Human Rights Campaign Fund, a national gay lobbying group.

In the 1970s, gay organizations tended to be dominated by a small, radicalized group of activists, but the AIDS crisis mobilized the larger gay community. The 1987 March for Lesbian and Gay Rights in Washington drew several hundred thousand people, many of whom had not been previously politically active, gay people said.

"People left the march feeling we need to do a better job of organizing," said Peri Jude Radecic, legislative director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. "People have come forward to organize on both a political and social level."

In the Washington area, the new organizers founded a variety of groups. Northern Virginia gay couples meet monthly to discuss issues surrounding long-term relationships. The Metropolitan Community Church, a Protestant denomination with a membership that is 90 percent gay, has parishes in Rockville and Oakton.

"We become just like a family," said Charles Randall, a member of the Prince William Gay and Lesbian Association.

Some social groups also have turned to politics. Elizabeth Goodman, president of the Fairfax Lesbian and Gay Citizens Association, became one of the first openly gay people to speak out in a Fairfax public meeting when she testified last month in favor of the public schools' Family Life Education program, which includes a discussion of homosexuality.

Her testimony drew some hostile reaction. Goodman's testimony, said Fairfax Supervisor Elaine N. McConnell (R-Springfield), "raised a very definite red flag to me."

Laws affecting gay lifestyles vary among the metropolitan jurisdictions. For the most part, D.C. and Maryland jurisdictions provide more legal protection for gay people than those in Virginia.

Efforts by gay groups in Virginia are further hampered because local governments can exercise only those powers explicitly delegated by the state legislature, which is generally more conservative than Northern Virginia legislators.

Arlington County Board members decided last year to add sexual orientation to the county's anti-discrimination ordinance, but a bill to give them that authority died in a state legislative committee. In contrast, most Maryland cities and counties surrounding D.C. and Baltimore already have outlawed discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

A federal gay rights bill, introduced 15 years ago and never passed, includes among its congressional sponsors five Maryland senators and representatives but none from Virginia. However, gay-rights activists said they were pleased when members of the staff of U.S. Sen. Charles S. Robb (D-Va.) met with gay-rights activists in 1988.

"It takes a while to be a mature organization and have established credibility," said Lee Stinnett of the Arlington Gay and Lesbian Community Association.

Virginia

1. Sodomy is a felony with a maximum sentence of five years.

2. The Alcholic Beverage Control Act says the ABC board can suspend or revoke the license of a bar or restaurant if it has become "a meeting place for . . . homosexuals {or prostitutes, drug addicts, etc.}."

3. The Mixed Beverage Law (1968) says no licensed establishment "shall knowingly employ a person who is . . . a homosexual {or a prostitute, gambler etc.}."

4. The Virginia General Assembly enacted a law allowing localities to adopt anti-discrimination Human Rights Ordinances, but did not include sexual orientation as a protected class. In Virginia, local governments can exercise only that power that has been explicitly delegated by the state. The state attorney general has issued an opinion that local governments could not add a protected class to local ordinances.

5. The state hate-crimes law, which provides for harsher penalties for bias-related crimes, does not include anti-gay crimes.

Alexandria: In 1988 added gay people to its human rights ordinance in defiance of the attorney general's opinion.

Arlington: Adopted an ordinance that does not include gay people in June 1989, but County Board members voted to ask the legislature for permission to include sexual orientation. A bill introduced by Del. Mary A. Marshall (D-Arlington) would have granted that power, but it died this year in the Counties, Cities and Towns Committee with only three favorable votes.

Fairfax County: Gay people are not included in the human rights ordinance.

Prince William and Loudoun counties: No have human rights ordinances.

Maryland

1. Sodomy is a felony with a maximum sentence of 10 years. A state sodomy repeal effort passed the Senate three years ago, and died in the House Judiciary Committee.

2. The state hate-crimes law, which stiffens penalties and keeps track of such crimes, does not include anti-gay violence.

Anne Arundel: Gay people are not included in the human rights ordinance.

Howard County: Gay people are included in the human rights ordinance.

Montgomery County: Gay people were added to the human rights ordinance in 1983. Anti-gay crimes are included in laws on recording and providing restitution to victims of hate crimes.

Rockville: Gay people were added to the human rights ordinance in May 1990.

Takoma Park: Gay people are included in the human rights ordinance.

Gaithersburg: Gay people are included in the human rights ordinance.

Prince George's County: Gay people are not included in the human rights ordinance.

District of Columbia

1. Sodomy is a felony with a maximum sentence of 10 years. Congress overturned a repeal in 1981.

2. The human rights law has included gay people since 1977. But the Armstrong Amendment, passed by Congress in 1989, exempts educational institutions with religious affiliations.

3. The Bias Related Crimes Act, which includes anti-gay crimes, became law this year.