Somehow, word spread. To this day, Tully Satre, 16, does not know how his entire middle school found out three years ago that he was attracted to males. Satre, who was shy and still closeted, lost all his friends. He said teachers at his Catholic school told his parents he was gay and began treating him differently.

"I felt like a circus animal," said Satre, a lanky 6-foot-3 Culpeper resident entering his junior year at Notre Dame Academy in Middleburg. "I've had people spit at my feet. I've had people give me harmful remarks."

From the day he discovered that everyone knew about his sexuality, life has not been easy for Satre, but it has been getting better. His grades fell but have since improved. Though he has heard hurtful comments from peers and strangers, he said his parents are very supportive.

But Satre said he still felt alone in largely rural Culpeper County. There was no place or group that brought gay people together. When the Virginia General Assembly passed a bill in the last session limiting the contractual rights of gay men and lesbians, Satre felt he had to do something.

"I wanted somewhere to go," he said. "I didn't really see a lot going on in our community."

In June, Satre founded Equality Fauquier and Culpeper, the first gay rights group in those counties. Since then, he has been called a "Future Gay Hero" by The Advocate, a national gay magazine, and articles have been written about him in the Washington Blade and local newspapers.

His group, which has about 35 members, has been recognized by Equality Virginia, a statewide gay rights organization. Its initial goals include persuading schools and local governments to change nondiscrimination policies to include sexual orientation. The group hopes to have booths at gay festivals, participate in an AIDS walk, write to local politicians and perhaps hold a public viewing of a documentary on gay marriage.

"Certainly we have a lot of obstacles in Virginia," said Dyana Mason, executive director of Equality Virginia. She referred specifically to the General Assembly's passage last winter of a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage. But, she said, "I think even in some difficult places around the state, there is growing visibility of gays and lesbians."

The proportion of gays is not as high in the outer suburbs as it in urban centers, but the numbers are probably growing, said Gary J. Gates, a demographer at the University of California, Los Angeles, who compiled the data in the Gay and Lesbian Atlas published last year by the Urban Institute.

Gates said gays move to the suburbs for the same reasons heterosexuals do: to start families, buy cheaper homes and enjoy a lower cost of living. The 2000 U.S. Census found gays living in more than 99 percent of all counties. Gates said there are more than 500 same-sex couples in Prince William County out of almost 100,000 households.

Several Washington suburbs have gay rights organizations, such as Equality groups in Loudoun, Prince William and Fairfax in Virginia, and the recently established Equality Montgomery in Maryland. Equality Prince William was founded in 2004 after Manassas resident Kirk Marusak became angered by statements made by Del. Robert G. Marshall (R-Prince William).

Equality Fauquier and Culpeper is still a bare-bones operation, but its e-mail list, with 70 recipients, continues to grow, and attendance at meetings is up, Satre said. The group's last meeting, on Aug. 25, drew 20 people, compared with five at the first meeting. Satre said the group regularly receives hate e-mail and does not maintain a central office for fear of retribution. Satre also does not specify where he lives because the town is so small he fears the wrong person might seek him out.

"I get threats all the time," Satre said. "We're in a very conservative county. These are the reactions we're getting. We're not surprised."

Satre said his group has received hundreds of e-mails from young gay men and lesbians telling stories of discrimination and voicing support for the group. Some of them told of being thrown out of their homes and falling victim to drugs and unsafe sex because they felt alone and unwanted, he said.

"It can be harder for a teenager," he said. "Where is the kid, whose parents have shut him out of the house, going to go?"

His experience being outed at school toughened him, Satre said, forcing him to grow up quickly. In addition to running Equality Fauquier and Culpeper, he participates in school musicals and produces his own gothic rock music. He said he has learned to plan and juggle a lot, mainly by staying up well past midnight every night.

Equality Fauquier and Culpeper has received support from local businesses and individuals. Some stores, such as Ace Books in Culpeper, and Journey Wythyn, which sells holistic and spiritual items in Warrenton, have offered to display the group's stickers and agreed to host meetings.

Jeremiah Dawson's troubled past led him to want to become the youth advocate for Equality Fauquier and Culpeper. Now 22, he spent most of his teen years deep in drug use and denial about his sexuality. He began smoking marijuana and taking drugs at 14. He started skipping school to fit in with the "cool" kids, he said, because inside he knew he was different.

"In my mind I knew I liked guys, but I was so afraid, being in such a close-minded area. I thought, 'What would my family think?' " said Dawson, who lives in Warrenton.

Dawson is trying to start a gay-straight alliance for Fauquier and Culpeper, aiming primarily at high school students. He said he hopes those students would start similar organizations at their schools. Dawson has plans to take out ads in high school newspapers and put up fliers in places that draw teens.

"I don't want kids thinking that you're better off dead than gay. You're a person. You have something worth living for," he said.

Andrea Martens, 41, of Remington said she became involved in the organization because she wanted Fauquier's gay population to gain visibility. Martens, a member of Equality Virginia, said she is naturally shy but became vocal during last year's heated presidential election, she said.

"I couldn't just sit back quietly and do nothing," Martens said at the group's August meeting at the Culpeper County public library.

Bobbie and Max Hartman of Culpeper said they came to the meeting because they have had many gay friends. When they married several years ago, they were upset that their gay friends could not marry.

"I realized, as we were planning our wedding, that we were going to accomplish in 20 minutes of ceremony and signatures what it took friends of ours hours and hours with a lawyer to do," said Bobbie Hartman, 37.

"There are thousands of benefits that are attached to marriage, and we were able to cash in on that in a fairly easy way. Whereas we have a lot of friends who don't have that same option with their partners. That kind of equality is very important to me."

Tully Satre presides over a meeting of Equality Fauquier and Culpeper last month. He founded the group in June.