In the pages of last week's Bay Area Reporter, the principal gay newspaper here, letters to the editor slung the following at a certain gay sergeant with the county sheriff's office:

"Homophobic pig."

"Morality cowboy."

"Homophobic slime." "Judas Littlejohn." "Quisling Littlejohn." "Alice-in-Wonderland do-gooder."

And in an italicized shot from the editor himself:

"Traitor extraordinaire."

Larry Littlejohn is a direct man; bent over the opened newspaper in his small San Francisco apartment, he can read these aloud without wincing. "A lot of people saw what was necessary and what had to be done," he says. "But who wants to stand up and be attacked by everybody?"

What Littlejohn did was to go before the mainstream San Francisco press, identify himself as a homosexual with 20 years' tenure in gay rights groups, and declare that the disease called AIDS had become so dangerous and so prevalent that sex must be banned in the city's bathhouses. For nine months Littlejohn, incensed about what he saw as bathhouse owners' half-hearted efforts at posting AIDS warning notices, had been pleading with the city health department to close the bathhouses. Now he was publicly filing notice that he would seek signatures for a ballot initiative--that the people of San Francisco should be allowed to decide whether men could have sex in gay bathhouses.

Thirteen days later, in a declaration unprecedented in the bewildered efforts to cope with Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome, San Francisco public health director Mervyn F. Silverman announced that because researchers believe AIDS is transmitted by sexual contact involving the exchange of body fluids, the city itself would prohibit sexual contacts in the privately owned gay bathhouses. Baths that allowed "sexual activity between individuals" would risk losing their licenses, Silverman said, and the city would use some similar if still undetermined procedure to ban sexual activity in the private clubs and bookstores that gay men sometimes frequent for liaisons.

In San Francisco, where gays are sometimes estimated at one-fifth the city's adult population, this was an extraordinary thing to say. For two weeks news reports here have been full of the bathhouse issue; Mayor Dianne Feinstein said in the midst of a New York visit that she thought the bathhouses should be closed to "save lives," and a highly publicized random telephone poll taken by the San Francisco Examiner found that 79 percent of the respondents believed the city should stop sex in the baths or close them outright. So as Silverman made his plunge into what his press statement called "these uncharted waters," he had a vast and passionate audience that a week later was still doing furious battle over the San Francisco bathhouse debate. A window-shopper on Market Street the other day might have overheard three young men laughing mirthlessly as they walked; one of them spread his hands and said, "What are they going to use, hall monitors?"

David Clayton, co-owner of a chain of gay bathhouses: "Does he really mean he's going to go into the individual rooms people are going into? . . . I know of no way that the health inspectors are going to have the right to open up the individual doors to see who's in there and what they're doing."

Tom Waddell, a gay physician, recalling a hostile conversation this month with a bathhouse owner: "He said, 'Hey, Tom, we're talking about my livelihood!' . . . And I said, 'I don't know about you, but I've been to nine funerals in the last 10 months. And I am pretty tired of that. I don't think all of it takes place in the bathhouses, but a lot of it does.' And that was the end of our conversation."

Letter to the editor, Bay Area Reporter: "After all, San Francisco will be telling the nation, 'We've found the cure for AIDS. Prohibit gay sex.' While you're at it, why not repeal the consenting adults legislation. Queer bashing and morals arrests will be making a comeback."

They are not for taking baths. That should be understood at the outset. Nobody pretends they are for taking baths; some of the houses have steam rooms, or saunas, or more lavish facilities that include jacuzzis and swimming pools, but that is not why men pay their $5 or $10 for a locker or a tiny private room in a dimly lit San Francisco bathhouse. Men use them to meet other men, to engage sometimes in what the clinical language calls "multiple, anonymous sexual contacts." There is no real parallel in the lives of most heterosexuals; straight sex clubs and houses of prostitution exist, certainly, but they are not infused with cultural symbolism or celebrated as institutions worth defending.

So the fight is really about more than disease, or standards of cleanliness, or the licensing requirements of a small group of facilities most San Franciscans do not even recognize from the outside. It is also about sex, about sexual behavior so foreign and so unnerving to many heterosexuals that at the mention of the bathhouses here the gulf between gays and straights widens suddenly into nearly impassable distance. The most common heterosexual response to the San Francisco bathhouses is a kind of collective shudder: why can't they stop it and go home?

That is why no single public issue of the last 20 years has pushed this city's gays into such emotional battle with each other--including thousands of men, by most reports the vast majority of gays, who long ago stopped going to the baths. In the panic of encircling death, men and women have accused each other here of ignoring the severity of AIDS, or helping kill off their fellow gays, or betraying the essence of gay sexuality before heterosexuals who never approved of it anyway. The bathhouses are attacked; the bathhouses are defended; letter writers invoke images of the pink triangles that Nazis affixed to homosexuals.

"The right to be married, the right to have weddings, the right to live as husband and wife, the right to use birth control, the right to regulate how many children you're going to have, the right to abortion--all that I equate to our right to be sexual."

Allan Be'rube' is a San Francisco historian whose current project is a history of gays during World War II. It is plain to him that the baths must change if AIDS is to be controlled--but not this way, he says, and not with the old government-ordered morality trials so vivid in his research.

Put the baths in historical context, Be'rube' suggests: a profoundly different time, 30 years ago, when fear informed nearly every homosexual encounter in the outside world. A homosexual might be blackmailed, or murdered, or put through the slower agony of public exposure. Scattered through the heterosexual world, in places advertised by discreet word of mouth, were the small islands of safety where gays could meet, and with some small confidence, let go: the bars and the baths.

"They provided places to have sex that were safe," Be'rube' says. "The institution was as much in jeopardy as you were, so you weren't alone." Even there, it was dangerous to expose oneself too much, and men learned to rely on the anonymity and hurried liaisons. "You had to trust somebody a lot to tell them your real name," Be'rube' says.

So the baths today carry a rich, sad, relieved kind of history even in places like San Francisco, which is one of the few cities in America where homosexuals can usually count on being allowed to conduct themselves as they like. "They have a tremendous symbolism," Be'rube' says.

"It's like, here's a refuge, here's one of the refuges--it's a refuge from judgmentalism, from moralism," Be'rube' says. "We were paying money to get in there, and sometimes it was too much, but we weren't paying for sex. We were paying for the territory--to get in there."

And now, AIDS. In San Francisco a new case is diagnosed nearly every day. A November 1983 report for the city Department of Public Health found that although AIDS had clearly changed sexual behavior among many gay men, those who frequented bathhouses were the most likely to engage in dangerous kinds of sex--and that public health department educational efforts had been ineffective at convincing them otherwise. The answer, says Be'rube', is more education, better-presented education: Use the bathhouses, he says, for sexual practices that do not spread the disease.

"Traditionally before elections, conventions, Olympics and World's Fairs, cities get cleaned up," he says. "The traditional targets of that are the prostitutes, winos, hustlers, queers--the sexual underground of cities . . . It's hard to imagine that this is not related."

As of April 9, 475 men in San Francisco had been diagnosed with AIDS since the disease was identified three years ago. Only New York, with about 1,500 cases as of last month, has reported more. Of the San Francisco AIDS patients, 176 had died by this month, many of them spending their last days and weeks emaciated and disoriented and in enormous pain. New York health officials have made no move to close or control the gay bathhouses there; neither have officials in Los Angeles, which reports the third highest incidence of AIDS in the country. "It's not the baths themselves that are the problem, it's the activity," says a New York public health official. "We don't feel we have the public health evidence that would make us take such a large step of trying to outlaw certain kinds of interactions between consenting adults."

"There's a very verbal, vocal and irrational minority of gays who defend the baths, but there's a thick undercurrent that says, 'Hey, look, the party really is over. Not only does this mean you should close the baths, but hey, the whole unbridled sexual thing really was a dead end.' "

He is a writer, gay, mid-fifties, many years of involvement with gay rights groups. Although he is open about his homosexuality, he prefers to talk about this without being named. He has never frequented the baths, although he understands why men craved their visits there; now, he says, the time has passed both for the baths and for the casual sex they encouraged.

"If you go into war, the first thing you do is dehumanize the enemy--they have no names and they have no faces--and what the hell is the difference?" he asks. "What about the guy who spends 15 years in the tubs going from one body to another? What's he got to show for it? What's he going to look back on after a lifetime of it all? That petrifies me."

It may be time, it seems to the writer now, to declare that even a nonoppressive world lays medical and social limits to what consenting adults can do. "I think gays investigated those limits--I really do," he says. "There really are honest-to-God limits to what you could do sexually . . . You could take away AIDS, and you're still looking at a community that happens to be a diseased community. I'm sorry. The bulk of your venereal diseases now rests within the gay community. The bulk of enteric intestinal diseases is now within the gay community." And much of that can be blamed on multiple, high-volume sex, he says. "Medically speaking, it's the dumbest thing I've ever heard of," the writer says heatedly. "I've heard of a lot of dumb things, but it's the dumbest."

So the tradeoff, he says, is clear. Gays must reexamine their own sexual standards in the interests of staying alive, and that means banning sex in the baths. He knows the "parks and bathrooms" argument--that policing the bathhouses will simply force gay men back into furtive and dangerous assignations in public places--and he does not believe it.

Will banning sexual contact inside shut the bathhouses altogether? Probably, he says. And no great loss. "No amount of people getting together and hollering and screaming about how this represents my civil rights and this is gay liberation is going to convince me that this represents gay liberation," he says. "Why in the hell bathhouses should represent a civil rights thing is beyond me."

"You're not going to stop people having sex. You can't be everywhere. You're not going to have two or three people per square foot to watch that everybody doesn't have sex."

Tom Doyle is 43, slim, mustachioed, from a midwestern Catholic family, owner now of a small gift shop a few blocks from San Francisco's celebrated Castro Street. Doyle is gay, like the great majority of men in his neighborhood, and he used to seek out sexual pleasure in the bathhouses until he says AIDS finally drove him away.

He can still remember how different they were when he came to San Francisco 13 years ago. "They were dark, off the street, hidden, always threatened to be closed down," he says. "It was always around election time when the baths were raided."

And he visited at first with such trepidation, alarmed about what might take place inside--this makes him smile now. "I think one of the things gay people have talked about, and I don't know if this is good or bad, but they've been able to separate sex from love, and sex as enjoyment rather than as a prelude to a relationship," he says. "And the tubs were a way to be able to confirm that. People went there because they wanted to have sex. They didn't have to have love."

And for Doyle, the freedom to indulge in that kind of sex--which he did quite often--is so crucial to his sense of himself that he thinks government intervention in the baths would be as oppressive as it is stupid. "Freedom always has its responsibilities," he says. "I'll fight for the freedom to choose, even if it's not for somebody's own good . . . When you get right down to it, the bathhouses are only a facility. It's only a place, and closing the place is not going to stop it. It's like going to church. It's not going to stop religion."

He knows how impatient this argument makes many heterosexuals--how after so much publicity about AIDS, they cannot understand any gay man entering a bathhouse and deliberately putting himself at risk of contracting a disease that would probably kill him. Doyle says he knows what the gay man's answer is: "Usually the same answer that smokers give you. 'We're all going to die sooner or later . . . I know the risks. I have fun while I can.' "

He brandishes his lighted cigarette, slightly abashed, and shrugs. "How many straights are still smoking?" he asks. "Social drinking for people, straight or gay--go to a cocktail party and don't drink. An alcoholic has one hell of a time staying on the program--'What do you mean, you can't stop it? It's so easy.' I'd like to know what the straight reaction would be if AIDS had hit the straight community, and not the gay community, if it was sexually transmitted there. How are they going to stop it? You going to ask all the straight people to stop having sex?"