Certainly it was a grim issue that brought 1,000 people to the Shoreham last night for the Human Rights Campaign Fund's AIDS benefit. But there was something of an exultant air at this gala:

Dr. Ruth Westheimer proclaimed from the podium that "good sex is good sex whether practiced by heterosexuals or homosexuals." Composer Jerry Herman accompanied singer Patrick Quinn as he belted out the lyrics to Herman's "I Am What I Am" from "La Cage aux Folles." The Gay Men's Chorus serenaded the group, and lots of guests were leaving the hotel just shy of midnight to top off the gala with dancing at Tracks, the discothe que.

The grim weather was -- well, outside.

"Even the warning of a hurricane didn't deter me," said Dr. Ruth.

"I hear there may be a storm outside," said Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.), " . . . but this group is taking this town by storm."

Indeed they were last night. The $125-a-head benefit was a testament to the gay community's political and financial strength. The event raised $130,000 for the AIDS Campaign Trust, which was set up to support candidates for federal office who favor increased funding for research and treatment of AIDS. The largest group affected so far has been gay men. The Human Rights Campaign Fund, established four years ago, is a political action committee devoted to promoting the civil rights of gay men and lesbians.

Symbolic candles on each table were lit at the beginning of dinner. "Everyone I know has lost someone," said Herman, who was honored with the organization's Human Rights Award. "People who were in shows of mine, people I worked with -- I don't know anyone who hasn't been touched by this."

Members of last night's group prided themselves on having been longtime combatants in the fight against AIDS -- that is, before Rock Hudson made the disease such an open issue. "We're a community and we're a very proud community," said Vivian Shapiro, the national cochair of the Human Rights Campaign Fund. "A community the government didn't care much about. When AIDS first struck, we started carrying our loved ones up the steps . . . and when it was little children and nongays we reached out."

"I think New York has lost the lead with political gay activism," said playwright Larry Kramer, the author of "The Normal Heart," a much-talked-about play dealing with AIDS, which is now playing in New York's Public Theater. "Tonight Washington has it." And of course, what would an evening with Dr. Ruth be without some talk of good sex? "There are people out there with the misguided notion that gay sex is different from straight sex -- well I guess it is a little different . . ." she said, provoking laughter. "People who would spread the idea that homosexual sex is not as good or important as heterosexual sex are themselves spreading a disease as threatening to society as AIDS itself."

And she addressed the audience: "Instead of spreading fear and hysteria, you have been spreading guidelines and facts."

Waxman and Rep. Ted Weiss (D -- N.Y.) were received enthusiastically last night. Both are among the 10 members of Congress who will be the first to receive $1,000 contributions from the AIDS Campaign Trust.

Shapiro said this dinner had been better attended by lesbians than had those of the past. "There are only so many gay men who are gay leaders," she said, "and we pray every day they are going to be alive another day. We know we have one blessing," she said, referring to lesbians. "We're pretty safe and we can carry that ball."