BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (AP) _ The Alabama Forum isn't an underground newspaper after nearly two decades in existence, but it's not quite above ground, either.

Billing itself as the state newspaper for gays and lesbians, the smart-looking tabloid is put together by volunteers and distributed mainly through bars, stores, health clinics and churches that cater to homosexuals.

Most of the 3,500 copies printed each month are given away, but about 250 people have mail subscriptions. Advertisements from stores, nightclubs, lawyers, doctors and counselors fill nearly half of each 24-page issue.

``We've gotten a lot of business through it,'' said Yvonne Boudreau, owner of Rainbow's Ltd., a gay bookstore in Huntsville. ``It's very informative, very important.''

There are national magazines like ``The Advocate'' and ``Out'' for homosexuals, and most large cities have at least one gay paper.

But the non-profit Forum serves as a vital link for gays and lesbians in conservative Alabama, where homosexuals are regularly derided on radio talk shows and a state sodomy law remains on the books.

Many of the newspaper's writers use pseudonyms, partly to protect against harassment and to preserve their regular jobs.

``If it wasn't there, there would be a major void,'' said David White, state coordinator of the Gay and Lesbian Alliance of Alabama. ``It's the only way we can get a lot of our news out there.''

Indeed, the Forum has a lot of news that doesn't appear in mainstream papers.

White recently wrote a front-page article about his group's effort to raise $20,000 for a lawsuit challenging the state sexual misconduct law, which prohibits types of sex common among homosexuals and some heterosexuals.

Another story told of an upcoming beauty pageant for female impersonators, and a one-paragraph blurb announced a statewide ``coffeehouse'' for homosexual youth.

Libertee Belle, a Birmingham-area drag queen, writes a campy column about gay nightlife titled ``Under the Barstool.'' There are sports stories devoted to gay bowling leagues and softball teams.

On the last two inside pages are phone-sex advertisements and classified ads from gay men seeking companionship in big cities like Birmingham, Mobile, Huntsville and Montgomery, plus towns like Athens, Boaz, Gadsden and Leeds.

Not unlike what would be expected at any newspaper, there have been a few complaints about the most flamboyant ads from some of the paper's most conservative readers.

``(The classified pages) are definitely out of character with the rest of the paper,'' said White.

The Forum began in 1977 as a newsletter of Lambda Inc., a homosexual support organization. It switched to the tabloid format in 1981, and June Holloway has been the editor for nine years.

Ms. Holloway, who works a regular job at night, spends her days in the paper's cramped, one-room office, located in a downtown office building that also houses Birmingham AIDS Outreach.

Ms. Holloway and others put the Forum together by computer, and a contractor prints it.

``Because we don't have a lot of money we can't do a lot of the things we'd like to do as far as the way the paper looks,'' said the soft-spoken Ms. Holloway. ``It was a big deal when we ran our first four-color picture.''

Publishing a gay newspaper in Alabama presents unique challenges, but not as many as some might believe. Ms. Holloway said problems have been minimal through the years, with only a handful of harassing phone calls.

``It may be they don't know we're here,'' she said.

Associate editor Mark Moore said the Forum's biggest problems are similar to those faced by any small publication trying to serve a widely dispersed population.

``It's definitely challenging to keep it going in that it's mainly volunteer,'' said Moore, a journalism graduate of the University of Montevallo. ``Also, being statewide has its own challenges in that you're trying to cover a wide area from one place.''