New England witch trials belong to the past, or so it is thought. This summer on Cape Cod, the reputation of Rep. Gerry Studds was burned at the stake by a large number of his constituents determined to torch the congressman for his private life. In July, the House censured Studds for having a brief consenting homosexual relationship with a congressional page.

The censure should have been the end of it. Studds said he acted stupidly and expressed regrets.

For many in his district here on Cape Cod--an area of coastline beauty where the sea winds might be expected to clear people's heads of vengefulness--the censure wasn't enough. The absurdity of the attacks on Studds peaked during a public meeting in Dennis, one of the Cape's 45 towns. A petition signed by more than 300 citizens demanded that Studds resign from Congress: "We find his continuation in office an embarrassment. He has debased his manhood. He has given up the right to represent us."

Studds lacks manhood? What is more manly than, first, having the moral courage to face the music for your mistake and, then, having the political courage to meet the voters face to face for whatever wrath they wished to vent. During the August recess, Studds didn't hide, nor did he announce, as is almost mandatory in the parliamentary procedures of congressional contrition, that he has been born again to the ways of the Lord.

Studds skipped the street theater. Instead, he kept to his schedule of holding constitutent meetings through his district. Few in Congress are as intractably available to the voters. Studds' office calculates that in six fatigueless terms he has held more than 700 constitutent meetings. If anyone deserved a break this summer, it was Studds. He wasn't going to learn that much more by holding another meeting in which gay-baiters would work him over and the righteous would wave placards saying "Get the Gay Out."

The yammerings of critics in Cape Cod--that they want manhood, not effeminancy, in their politicians--represent a lingering though unfounded belief that homosexuals are afflicted, on top of all their alleged moral disorders, with spinelessness. Only a decade ago, in the acclaimed book "The Denial of Death," Ernest Becker discussed homosexual behavior as a "problem of ineptness, vague identity, passivity, helplessness--all in all, an inability to take a powerful stance in life."

As applied to Gerry Studds, this assessment has a stunning wrongness to it. It is out of whack, too, in the case of former representative Bob Bauman, the Maryland conservative who has anything but a "vague identity" now that he is a public advocate for gay rights. In the decade since the Becker assessment, numerous homosexuals have taken powerful stances against private attitudes and public policies that put scorn as the only proper response to gays.

As a result, gains have been made against job discrimination, though not enough. Employers from school boards to the armed services still punish those whose sexual preferences don't square with the local codes of conduct. Progress has also occurred in attitudinal changes, though as the raspy scene in Cape Cod suggests, no homosexual in America can expect to be let alone by bigots and haters.

This summer's coarsest display of bias came in an editorial in the Wheeling (W.Va.) News-Register. Titled "AIDS, Homos Stir Ugly Scene," the piece said that "for its own sake and to avoid a possible 'epidemic' of intolerance and hate, the Gay movement had best fold its banners and fade from the public scene." The paper was pleased that quiet prevailed, at least locally: "The public backlash brought on by AIDS so far has not hit the smaller communities, such as Wheeling, because Gays and Lesbians in this area have kept a low profile. They have not gone overboard in joining these Gay Liberation movements, but have remained in their own tight little circles."

Should the circle ever untighten and Wheeling's homosexuals dare demand their full equal rights and civil rights, they might invite Gerry Studds to town. He is familiar in the ways of deflecting scorn and ignorance, which has been the epidemic homosexuals have suffered all along. 1983, The Washington Post Co.