On the last day of seventh grade, Dave Grossman mounted some cardboard boxes down the street from his junior high school and held a one-boy rally.

I'm sick of pretending, he announced into a cheap loudspeaker.

I'm gay.

The affair was a bit botched. Dave's principal, fearing a "disruption," asked him to move his makeshift stage and rainbow flags away from school grounds. The event caused barely an eye-roll from his peers, who scattered from school eager to inaugurate summer.

Still, there was Dave with his loudspeaker and his conviction. Like a soap opera character haunted by a secret past, he had been living two lives. In school, he was a straight kid with straight A's. After classes, he rode the Metro downtown and hung with gay friends past dinner time. He says few people could believe that at 13, he was so certain he was gay.

Two years later, Dave puts it like this: "It was a lot of built-up frustration over everyone saying, `You're too young, you're too young, you're too young.' "

In the national debate about gay and bisexual identity, age is a volatile fault line along which schools are being forced to pick sides. Gay-youth advocacy groups say the average age of kids who "come out" has decreased substantially in recent years. Whereas once a teenager might have come out in senior year with a burn-your-bridges disinhibition, now that same teenager is making his homosexuality public in middle school or ninth grade.

Puberty is a roulette wheel of biding time and spurting growth. One preteen is sexually active while her classmate is still collecting stickers. American girls are hitting puberty far earlier than they were a century ago, and there's growing awareness of a disconnection between physical and mental maturity. Add the perennial dilemmas of sex education -- how much kids should learn, how soon, from whom -- and you have a recipe for controversy.

What happens when a middle school student -- in braces, in a training bra, inexperienced -- announces that she's gay?

It's happening. Ritch Savin-Williams, a developmental psychologist at Cornell University, used data from nine independent studies conducted over the last 20 years to conclude that the average age at which young men label their same-sex attractions as gay dropped from almost 20 in 1979 to just 13 in 1998. They may not, however, definitively call themselves gay until a few years later.

"Every time we sample these kids, the average age is getting younger," says Savin-Williams. "What's different is that now gay kids are becoming like straight kids -- they know that they're gay before they have sex."

At Longfellow Middle School in Falls Church, Dave Grossman forced the issue that advocacy groups, educators and mental health providers have been debating for several years: Should the nation's struggle over sex and morality play out inside schools, involving kids in a debate that can be loudspeaker loud? Or should such issues be fought at the ballot box, from church pulpits and at home?

Longfellow's principal, Gail Womble, respected Dave's desire to come out, if not his venue. In the end, she was relieved that Dave said his piece without causing an uproar.

"I did have concerns about how middle school students would meet that kind of disclosure," says Womble, who has since moved to Rachel Carson Middle School in Fairfax. "At this age, we have kids who are old enough to be exploring those feelings and other kids who are still playing with Barbie dolls."

Dave's mother was disgusted by what she felt were "outrageous" banishing dictums imposed on her son, like making Dave move his stage across the street. Donna Brown Grossman says Womble also asked Dave to cover a T-shirt reading "Nobody Knows I'm Gay," and would not let him pass out homemade pamphlets promoting his rally.

"Her reaction was one thing that made me feel that I had to take my child out of the public school system," says Grossman, 48, who subsequently transferred her son to Thornton Friends, a private Quaker school.

As school systems debate whether to allow gay support groups, or pass anti-harassment policies on behalf of gays, or show their faculty the controversial documentary "It's Elementary: Talking About Gay Issues in School," proponents on both sides point to the tender age of the youngsters as evidence of the rectitude of their positions.

Gay-rights advocacy groups and much of the mental health community cite 12-year-old gay youngsters as proof that being homosexual is "natural." Christian conservative groups argue that young adolescents bombarded by hormones and pop images of sexuality are especially susceptible to gay "recruiting."

"Those kids are incredibly impressionable, and I think certainly the younger the age, the more they can be swayed," says Peter LaBarbera, editor of the Lambda Report on Homosexuality, which argues that the declining age at which youngsters are coming out is largely the product of gay propaganda inside schools.

"There's different gradations. Love, sexuality: It's a very tangled web."

This is Ellen Sweeney, 18, an assured young woman who was co-leader of the gay discussion group at Sidwell Friends, a private school in Northwest Washington, during this, her senior year. She began to question her own sexuality in seventh grade, joined the discussion group in high school, and recently, has taught workshops to middle school students on gay issues.

Incidentally, Sweeney is straight. But, she says, "I question myself up until this day."

This open attitude toward sexuality is a splinter in the skin of many who oppose gay discussion groups. They ask, what if youngsters who would otherwise be straight are encouraged to question, and ultimately, to declare themselves gay?

In the last few years in the Washington area, at least 15 gay discussion groups have cropped up in high schools and one middle school. The majority of the groups are in Montgomery County, where, amid a storm of controversy three years ago, the school board added gay students and teachers to the list of people protected from discrimination. The groups, which range from sanctioned clubs to informal lunch gatherings, serve as sounding boards -- to examine homophobia, for example, or the feelings of a member who says she has been "questioning."

The problem with such discussions, opponents say, is that they don't offer an alternative to open-armed acceptance of homosexuality. Janet Folger, national director of the Center for Reclaiming America, an arm of Coral Ridge Ministries, says if gay issues must be part of the school climate, youngsters should at least be exposed to "ex-gays" and told of the health risks of homosexuality.

As things stand, "there is no balance," Folger says. "There is no message of hope . . . that you can walk away from it."

Like many area private schools, Edmund Burke School in the District doesn't see it that way. When a gay-issues discussion group was created there this year, middle school students were included in the weekly lunch meetings. Hugh Taft-Morales, the group's faculty adviser, said the group has "no agenda."

"They are already talking about this," he says. "What we're doing is taking responsibility as adults to raise the level of the discussion."

Although no exhaustive data can be found on discussion groups in schools, the New York-based Gay, Lesbian and Straight Educational Network keeps tabs on clubs that register with it. Its national list has blossomed from roughly 150 high school "Gay/Straight Alliances" last year to about 400 this year, concentrated mainly in Massachusetts, California and the New York City area. In Maryland and Virginia, there are seven registered high school alliances.

"Some people feel it's not our job," says Pamela Latt, principal of Centreville High School, which is on track to become the third high school in Virginia with a registered gay/straight alliance. Centreville has had a gay counseling group for two years, but a few students have been pushing for more.

"Having a counseling group sort of sends the wrong message," says Caroline Zuscheck, 17, a straight student involved in the effort. "It's like if you have an eating disorder or a problem with depression."

But although the principal supports starting an alliance next year, she also has reservations. On one hand, she says, it will contribute to a healthier environment for gay teenagers, a high-risk group. But Latt knows she is treading on important toes in conservative Centreville, where some School Board and community members have already voiced discomfort with a school-sanctioned club. "I don't blame people for being very cautious and careful," she says.

Latt is conflicted for other reasons. She is Catholic and has puzzled over whether homosexuality is wrong (she doesn't think so) and what causes it (she doesn't know). At any rate, she says, the alliance is about "saving lives," not promoting homosexuality. But perhaps in an ideal world, this messy moral stew wouldn't fall into the principal's lap.

"This really shouldn't be a part of my job," Latt says finally. "But I don't think I have a choice."

Amy Levy and her son remember the moment differently. The way Will tells it, his mom was nagging him, Why don't you have a girlfriend? The way Levy tells it, Will's confession came straight out of the clear blue sky.

Never mind why. That moment changed everything. One minute, the mother is dropping her son off in the car. The next, he tells her, "I'm gay," and hops out.

He is 14.

For Levy, 50, that belly-flop into reality challenged a lot of rules. Will was the first openly gay student at his tiny Bethesda private school, which has no specific policies on the issue. In an attempt to carve a comfortable space for himself, Will, now 16, met with teachers. Levy met with teachers. Teachers met with other teachers.

Levy says Will's coming out made them all dissect their feelings about homosexuality. "Do you really believe in what you thought you believed in when it becomes part of your life?" she wonders. (To protect her son, Levy asked that Will's last name, which is different from hers, not be published.)

Gay-rights advocates say this type of discussion is a door slowly creaking open, a departure from past decades when an unofficial "don't ask, don't tell" policy reigned in high schools and middle schools.

At a recent meeting for gay Montgomery County youths, two adults leading the session reminisced about how different it once was: one man, one woman, both in their forties or fifties, both of whom married at 23, both of whom divorced, both of whom realized only in adulthood that they were, in fact, gay.

They listened to the teenagers and then ticked off each belated milestone in their own closeted lives, as if to say, All those years lost.

Dave Grossman is a slight, blue-eyed youth with an energy and intelligence that sometimes gets the better of him. He skipped eighth grade, and, after ninth, went to Simon's Rock, a college in Great Barrington, Mass., designed for kids of high school age. Now he's transferring to American University, entering his second year of college at 15.

While he was growing up, Dave says, instinct told him he liked other boys. He just knew, natural as corn. In fourth grade, he says, "I came to my senses. I was just staring benignly at the boy across from me."

At 11, Dave found online chat rooms and located the gay bulletin board in short order.

At 12, he told his parents, because there was no reason not to, because now he knew for sure, and the knowledge pressed in on him. It was after synagogue on a late summer night. The date sticks in his mind -- Aug. 30, 1996. He recalls his mother crying with the shock and the strangeness.

"She was like, `Wow, I didn't even know you had a sexuality.' "

And Dave started his journey, because he saw himself as a young man with a sexuality and an image to build, and he shed his baby fat, his glasses and his gawky hair and hatched a plan to let people know that he had found himself. A stage, a loudspeaker, a grand announcement.

"I was going to do something," he says. "Something that was extravagant."

A showdown of sorts -- even if there were few people around to watch. A showdown, at the very least, with the person who mattered.

CAPTION: Dave Grossman, 15, revisits the site where he declared his sexuality over a loudspeaker.