SAN FRANCISCO -- The meeting of American Legion Post 44 was well under way last week when three old-time Legionnaires in blue Legionnaire caps poked their heads into the room, looked around at the crowd and quickly retreated.
This was not the American Legion they knew, a network of 16,000 posts around the nation where conservative war veterans could swill a beer and talk about the old days.
At Post 448, known as the Alexander Hamilton post, the majority of the veterans are gay, the beverages are wine and coffee and the talk is not of battles past but of the current struggle for gay rights in the military.
With President Clinton vowing to lift the military ban on homosexuals, the 9-year-old Hamilton post, the only one of its kind, is in its heyday. Last week, the post issued a national call for new members, hoping to gain strength for its confrontation with the American Legion leadership, commonly referred to at this post as "rednecks."
"We are encouraging people from around the country to transfer in or join us," the post's commander, Paul D. Hardman, said as he unveiled an advertisement that will run in gay magazines.
"Particularly as we're fighting rednecks on the national level, the numbers matter."
Mr. Hardman hopes that when Senate hearings begin next month, members of the Alexander Hamilton post will be asked to testify.
The official position of the American Legion, the largest veterans group, with 3.1 million members, is to support the Defense Department stance that "homosexuality is incompatible with military service."
The leadership of the American Legion, which is based in Indianapolis, passed Resolution 25 to that effect.
Mr. Hardman read a bit of Resolution 25 to the Hamilton post membership:
"The policy of denying homosexuals in the military services . . . has resulted in a homosexual-free military force since our country's founding." The membership howled with laughter.
For starters, Mr. Hardman, a historian, maintained that Alexander Hamilton, who wrote the first Army regulations, was a homosexual.
Nineteen new members have joined in the last two weeks, Mr. Hardman said, including gay veterans from Texas and Massachusetts. Post membership is about 200 and growing, he said.
The members include one World War I veteran and veterans from World War II, Korea, Vietnam and new members from the Persian Gulf war.
There are only a handful of lesbians; some heterosexuals have joined, finding the post an accepting place. Most seem to define themselves politically as liberals.
About 40 members gathered at the meeting, held in a large, carpeted hall in the imposing granite War Memorial Building downtown. Sitting in rows of chairs, the generations clashed and blended: They shared the same sexual orientation, the same fear in the past of being discovered and discharged from the military.
But they have lived with different wars, different ways of dressing, different words for being gay.
"I was gay then, but we didn't use the word 'gay' ," said Perry Wood, 71, recalling his service on the submarine Spadefish in World War II. "We used the word 'homosexual.' "
The word "queer," popular with young, radical homosexuals, irks some older members, who have spent a lifetime fearing that label. But Mr. Hardman, 70, told the membership, "I think we should get used to words like this that are militant. We have to get over our old-fogey prejudices."
Russ Bell, a white-haired 72-year-old who joined the Army field artillery in 1942, chatted with Gary Harman, 42, who saw combat with the Air Force in Vietnam and wears an earring.
The two described entirely different experiences of being gay in the military.
"It was close quarters," recalled Mr. Bell, who served 28 years in the merchant marine after World War II. "You would be ridiculed and put to shame. I wasn't ready for that."
"At the chow hall, we had our own corner table," Mr. Harman said. "They knew we were gay, and they didn't care."
P. J. Allen, a 22-year-old lesbian who was investigated by the Naval Intelligence Service and discharged because of "homosexual tendencies," was one of the youngest newcomers. She had been looking for a veterans group for support.
"Then I found out there was a gay American Legion post -- imagine that," she said. "Yes, we are everywhere."
In 1983, when Mr. Hardman and a group of other veterans approached the California department of the American Legion about forming a post, they got the cold shoulder, he said, even though they met the requirement of having at least 15 honorably discharged veterans.
"It was our opinion that the resistance had to do with the fact that the vast majority of our members were of a gay, lesbian or bisexual orientation," said John E. Wahl, a gay former Navy pilot who is now a lawyer and a member of the post.
"They said, 'Will your members talk funny and dress funny?' " Mr. Hardman recalled.
The group was asked to produce their discharges and show them to two Legionnaires, Mr. Hardman said. "That's not required," he said.
They were also told that they had to have a bona fide clergyman as the post chaplain, Mr. Hardman said, when most posts merely draft a member. Mr. Hardman produced a gay veteran who was a rabbi.
"They hated that," he said.
Finally, Mr. Wahl drafted statements that threatened to seek enforcement of a city ordinance that forbids groups that use city funds to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation.
In 1984, the charter was granted.
The California department of the American Legion denies that it opposed the Hamilton post.
"It took longer than they thought was necessary to get a charter," said Charles Allemann, department adjutant. "Obviously, they got their charter. We certainly didn't turn it down."
"We're fighting from the inside," Mr. Hardman said. "That's the way you create change, or at least create sensitivity. . . .
"At first, they shunned us. Then they were nervous, and now we get some respect. They know we'll clobber them with a lawsuit if we have to."