Among the 60 people in the room at St. Thomas' Parish Episcopal Church in Northwest yesterday were young men and women, some openly gay, some considering "coming out." Sprinkled among them were parents -- some lawyers, a librarian, homemakers, a freelance writer -- all with children who are gay.

"How many of you are out?" asked Beverly Southerland, looking around the room.

About eight hands went up. "We still have work to do," she said.

Her audience had come for that work, some for the encouragement and support they needed to acknowledge publicly that they are gay, others to find out how they could help a friend or a relative. Many parents came to show the younger people real, live parents who had come to some understanding and acceptance of their gay children.

It was the annual "Coming Out Workshop," sponsored by the Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gay Men (P-FLAG) of the Washington Metropolitan Area. "Coming out" is the term used to describe the process people go through in acknowledging publicly that they are gay.

In her opening remarks, Southerland, president of the chapter, said everyone must find a right way to come out.

"Everybody's family is unique. You're the only one that knows your parents well, and only you can pick a good time to come out -- or to not come out," said Southerland, the mother of a lesbian.

The workshop included a panel discussion led by a District lawyer who has two gay sons, a Fairfax librarian who has a gay son, a District man who has written a book about his struggle to accept his homosexuality, and a lesbian who is an officer in the U.S. Army Reserve.

"Coming out is a long, long process, not a destination," said the reservist, who explained that though she was "out" to most people, she did not want to be identified in the newspaper because she's afraid the Army would "take away my pension."

It's fears like hers, and the potential for rejection on the job, in the community, and from friends and family members, that lead some gay people to live a kind of double life, hiding their sexual orientation.

For teenagers, the question of sexual preference can be particularly difficult because they are already undergoing the usual identity crises related to youth. Parents say gay youths often become reclusive and their behavior appears erratic. Most gay teenagers wait until they leave home to declare their sexual orientation.

Southerland said some parents grieve over the news that a child is gay, mourning because they believe they've lost the son or daughter they loved. The pattern of grief includes denial and guilt before they can talk about their feelings.

"You need to keep reiterating to them, 'I'm not any different today than I was yesterday,' " Southerland said. Parents should be given literature on homosexuality and referred to P-FLAG for support, she said. "Try to be patient with them."

"What mothers usually say is, 'What did I do wrong?' The first thing you need to do is assure them that they really didn't do this to you," she said.

Still, it was apparent that some of the young men in the audience were imagining the reactions of their parents, considering questions a mother or father might ask.

"How disappointed were you about {not having} grandchildren?" a young man asked the panel.

"I felt pretty bad about it at first," said lawyer George Spiegel. "I think coming to P-FLAG made a big difference to me."

Mickey Fleming, an administrative assistant at Common Cause, said he was raised in orphanages and foster homes and was molested and raped as a child. "It instilled in me a bitterness toward myself and men in general," he said. "I knew when I was growing up I was not attracted to females at all.

"But I was raised in the black church and taught homosexuality is . . . sinful and I'd be punished in hell," said Fleming, who is black. "I learned to hate myself. My coming out was when I decided to accept myself."

He wrote "About Courage," a book about the abuse he suffered and his struggle to accept his homosexuality. "We have to love ourselves," Fleming said.

Sometimes, both parents and children are pleasantly surprised at the reaction from others.

Joyce Goldman, a Fairfax mother, recalled one such surprise. She told a co-worker that her daughter was getting married, and the woman asked, "Do you like him?" Because there was no time to explain, Goldman replied, "Yes."

Later, Goldman explained, "My daughter is not marrying a man. She's marrying a woman, and yes, I like her very much."

The co-worker's answer was immediate. "Your daughter is a very lucky woman."