Denver. -- I was annoyed at first when organized homosexuals decided to call themselves ''gay.'' How dare they confiscate a perfectly serviceable synonym for ''happy,'' I thought. Children never again would be able to sing ''Don we now our gay apparel'' at Christmas without snickering.
Then I discovered that the connection between ''gay'' and homosexuals has deeper roots than I knew. The English ''gay'' comes from gai, which the Middle French popularly used to describe effeminate and pretentious characters in their all-male burlesque theater in the days before ladies performed in the theaters of either country.
The Scottish similarly used gai to describe anyone who was odd, different or, as today's young gay militants like to say defiantly, queer.
''Gay'' was appropriated by the gay liberation movement when it rose in the late 1960s and has come to be associated with lesbians as well as homosexual men in America, although female homosexual activists these days tend to defend ''lesbian'' to underscore the uniqueness of their problems and agendas.
So much for today's multiculture venture into gay history. It may seem trivial, but the names by which we call others are no small matter. It is one of the first things we know about others and, as much as I liked to think of myself as enlightened on the subject of human rights, there was much I did not know about how others, like homosexuals, live.
On the whole, they tend to live as heterosexuals do, in a diverse community, full of good eggs and bad eggs, like other communities. But they also live day to day looking over their shoulders in an atmosphere poisoned by fear, ignorance and outright bigotry.
Americans agree less on gay rights than they do perhaps on other rights. An August New York Times/CBS News poll found about 80 percent believed homosexuals should have equal rights to job opportunities, but only 57 percent supported homosexuals in the military and only 38 percent thought it was an acceptable alternative lifestyle.
Our national ambivalence is reflected in several recent ironic developments. The same day Americans elected a pro-gay-rights president, Colorado voted an amendment to its constitution that repealed gay-rights ordinances passed by Denver, Boulder and Aspen.
Then two top staff aides to Massachusetts' Republican Gov. William Weld revealed to the world that they were gay lovers, saying they were encouraged to come out of the closet by growing public support for gay rights.
Yet, rising pressure among Democratic supporters like Georgia Sen. Sam Nunn is nudging President-elect Clinton to go slow on dropping the military's ban on gays, lest he stir up a backlash.
And this battle may be coming to your town soon. Or coming back.
The same day Colorado passed its anti-gay amendment, Oregon voted down a more severe measure that would have declared homosexuality to be abnormal and a perversion of the same order as child molesting. The same day, Tampa voters repealed that city's gay-rights ordinance and Portland, Maine, voters decided to keep theirs.
Voters appear to be much less comfortable with open condemnation of homosexuals, like Oregon's measure, than they are with Colorado's more benign alternative of simply denying them ''special rights.'' That encourages Lon Mabon, leader of the Oregon Citizens Alliance, which sponsored Oregon's proposal. He vows to return with a new measure modeled on Colorado's.
The new argument: Colorado's new anti-gay constitutional amendment, which the American Civil Liberties Union is challenging, bans any state or local law that would give ''special rights'' to homosexuals. In effect, it overrules measures already passed in Denver, Aspen and Boulder to protect homosexuals )) from discrimination in jobs, housing or gay-bashing ''hate crimes.''
Kevin Tebedo, executive director of Coloradoans for Family Values, the measure's sponsors, told me his group is opposed only to ''special rights'' for homosexuals, which his group claims will lead to affirmative-action quotas.
It's a preposterous argument. No one of any note is asking for gay quotas, none are called for in the law and there's nothing ''special'' about the right to life, liberty and pursuit of an income in peace.
But, as Presidents Reagan and Bush ably demonstrated in blocking other civil-rights laws, the fear that one might have to give up something to protect somebody else's inalienable rights is a powerful fear, especially for those who think they might wind up on the giving end.
Welcome to the Culture War. The Cold War is over. The abortion-rights war appears to be winding down. Mr. Clinton only has to make good on his promised pro-choice legislation, court appointments, and executive orders (including lifting the ban on the French abortion pill RU486).