He's tall and trim, like some GQ model in jeans and bright Perry Ellis shirt, unbuttoned to the waist, as he sweeps from behind the bar to hug an ex-lover who has dropped in to say hello. It's midafternoon off busy U.S. 1 here, where he tends bar and sets a mean hors d'oeuvre tray for happy hour.

Soon customers will be pushing through the door, searching out love in the cool darkness, hiding out from the heat and the hate, and if they are regulars he will have their drinks waiting. He exudes energy, a warm smile. They like his style, the turquoise watch band matching the tiny lapis in his earlobe.

"I was 18 when we met," says his ex, elbows on the bar. "He was 21. It was a major romance. We were goo-goo-eyed . . .

"We were together 18 months, then became best friends. That's unusual in the gay world, where people usually don't speak to each other after they break up."

Everyone is speaking to Michael Hardwick these days, the new symbol of gay rights denied in a straight world -- even though he lost his fight over Georgia's sodomy law after taking it all the way to the Supreme Court. Bitterly divided 5 to 4, the court ruled last month that the Constitution is no protector of homosexual relations between consenting adults, even in the privacy of their own homes. Hardwick was the latest test case.

He spurned all media while his case wound through the courts. Then it was over and his attorney advised that the only appeal left was the court of public opinion. He had nowhere to go but "Donahue," and now here he is, scooping melon balls in the kitchen, awaiting the beer man, cheered by magazine polls suggesting most Americans take issue with the Supreme Court as well.

"The courts saw it as a 'homosexual' issue, but most people see it as a human rights issue," he says, ticking off a busy schedule of talk shows and gay rights rallies ahead, a rising star on the protest hit parade.

"It's hard to think of myself as a star," he says. "When people ask, 'How does it feel to be famous?' I say, 'Where's the "rich" part?' "

He's 32, shy and self-effacing one moment, cocky the next, a party boy reborn with a mission. "He's gone from a good-time guy to Joan of Arc of the gay world," laughs his ex, a Cuban named Jorge Vazquez. "He's much more serious than he used to be."

Overnight he's walking point for gays in a macho world, a hero to those who flirt here beneath Tiffany glass, or dance near a display case of color snapshots featuring muscled men in black bikinis -- "Mr. Hot Stuff" contestants -- or smile at newcomers over stiff drinks.

But how can he be a hero if he lost? Didn't he actually set back gay rights by taunting a predictably conservative Reagan court with a homosexual life-style case in a Falwellian era of Rambo, Eastwood and AIDS?

"My gay hairdresser said, 'If he'djust stayed quiet, we'd be better off,' " says Abby Rubenfeld, legal director of Lambda, the leading homosexual defense fund that backed the constitutional assault. "Some gay people feel that way, but they're in the minority -- and I think they're wrong. We're never going to rid ourselves of laws that are wrong unless we file lawsuits."

She conjures the first Supreme Court to bless separate but equal facilities for blacks in the late 19th century -- overturned 58 years later by the top court in the dawn of civil rights rulings. "I just hope we don't have to wait as long," she says. "But if I had to do it all over again, Hardwick is the ideal case. He was in a situation any of us could have been in -- in his own bedroom, not bothering anyone, and police appear at his door. It's terrifying."

"No way do I believe I hurt the cause," snaps Hardwick, who believes the setback has fueled sympathy for and better understanding of gay issues. "At first I was upset at losing , but now I want to fight. If you stick your head in the sand, problems don't just go away."

But suddenly, "I feel like I'm walking around naked," he says. "Now it's a public fact: I'm gay. You wonder how people think about you. I don't think I'll ever be totally comfortable with it."

One moment he's freaked by the "crazies" who roar by shouting obscenities and tossing eggs. Then he's palling it up with the beefy beer distributor, a Cuban who wheels in 40 cases of long-neck Bud. They were friends for months before Hardwick worked up the nerve to confess his sexual preference. "Big deal," shrugged Oswaldo Figueredo, 25.

Time for the pitch: Hardwick wants his straight friend to understand how the ruling might apply to him if police are deputized to go after heteros, how 19 of 24 states with sodomy laws criminalize all sodomy, including certain sex acts between married couples. Georgia's sodomy law bans anal or oral sex between anyone.

"Oswaldo," he asks, "you ever have sodomy with your wife?"

" 'Sodomy,' what's that?"

Hardwick defines it.

"No, never," he says. But Hardwick spies confusion, something lost in translation. He gets graphic.

"Oh, that!" laughs the beer man, trying to digest that in Georgia it would be illegal. "But it's my house . . . I say let everyone do what the heck they want. It's a free country. I'm from Cuba. That's what everyone came here for."

Hardwick scoops and slices, creating a colorful fruit tray, working his way from cantaloupe to kiwi. "All you gotta do," he says, "is make 'em realize it affects them, too. Then most heterosexuals are 100 percent behind you. Most people don't understand what sodomy is. They think it's some crazy, unnatural act . . . "

It was 10:30 a.m., July 5, 1982. Hardwick had worked all night at the Cove, a gay nightclub in Atlanta. He was tired, thirsty. He grabbed a beer and began walking home. He took a few swigs, then tossed it -- too late.

Patrolman Keith Torrick, then 23, a two-year police veteran fed up with big city "garbage," had seen it: drinking in public. With an elusive child-killer on the loose, officers were under pressure to boost arrest statistics, and here was some dude coming out of a nightclub that dumped drunk drivers on the street about the time children were leaving for school, Torrick fumed. It was an easy collar that might send a message. He whipped his red and white police cruiser around and screeched to a stop. "Where's the beer?" he demanded.

"Threw it away," Hardwick said.

"What were you doing in the bar?"

"I work there."

Torrick put him in back and wrote a ticket with a court date eight days later. "I'm counting on you to show up," he said. "If you don't, I'll take it that you're laughing in my face. And I will come find you. And I will lock you up."

He kept his word. A few hours after Hardwick failed to show, Torrick was back with an arrest warrant. Normally such warrants take a month to process, but Torrick was gung-ho. He'd gone to the court clerk, then tucked the warrant with others in his car visor. When he had down time, he aimed to go looking for skips like Hardwick.

"He's not home," said a house guest.

"Tell him I will be back," said Torrick.

Told he'd missed court -- Hardwick says the ticket was confusing -- he raced downtown, paid a $50 fine, got a receipt and forgot about it. The paperwork never caught up with Torrick.

Three weeks later, he was back. It was a hot August afternoon when Torrick knocked on the door. Hardwick didn't hear him. He was in a back bedroom with a one-night stand, a schoolteacher from North Carolina, a man. A house guest opened up.

Was Hardwick home? "I don't know," said the guest, groggy from sleep, "but you can look around."

Torrick marched down the hall. A bedroom door was ajar, the room lit by a candle. He peeked. It took a few seconds to adjust to the dark. He pushed open the door. There were two men engaged in oral sex. He spied a small bowl of marijuana. All that came out at the hearing.

"You're under arrest," he said.

"Excuse me," said Hardwick, "but what are you doing in my bedroom?"

Torrick waved the warrant. "But I paid it," Hardwick argued. "My receipt's at the office. Can't you call in to check, or drive by the club?"

"I don't run a taxi service," scoffed Torrick, who now had him for sodomy and drug possession. "Get dressed." He recalls Hardwick "ranting and raving about how I had no right to be in his house, how he'd have my job . . . I would never have made the case if he hadn't had an attitude problem."

He slapped on the handcuffs. He only had one pair, so he cuffed the two men together.

"You couldn't reason with him," says Hardwick. "He wouldn't even turn his back while we dressed." His sex partner was weeping, begging. "Please don't tell my wife . . .I'll lose my teaching job . . . "

Torrick drove them to his precinct, got the green light from his lieutenant. At the city jail, Hardwick recalls, the cop announced, "You'll be amused by this. These guys are here for sodomy."

"They should find what they're looking for in here," snickered a jailer. Escorted to a cell with drunks and assorted street criminals, they were taunted, teased.

"Wait till they get ahold of you in the pit!" guffawed a guard.

Hardwick made bail, but it took 12 hours to get processed out.

"God bless the police officer," says John Sweet, an activist attorney on the board of the local American Civil Liberties Union. It appeared to be the dream case local ACLU lawyers had been awaiting to challenge Georgia's sodomy law, on behalf of homosexuals, as a violation of privacy rights in the Constitution.

An ACLU computer check of Georgia prisons had found 44 people serving time for sodomy. But none was a "clean" case. Most had pleaded to the lesser charge rather than face stiffer penalties for rape or aggravated sodomy. Then along came Hardwick, a bartender whose activism was limited to marching in the Gay Pride parade.

Sweet laid out the prospects: Hardwick would come out in the headlines. There was danger in Yahooland, where three men had just jumped him outside his apartment, broken his nose and cracked three ribs. Employers might consider him too dicey to hire, as he soon found out when he lost a hotel trainee job. And there was prison to consider -- a sodomy conviction could bring one to 20 years in Georgia.

"We had a talk about the epic quality of the struggle," recalls Sweet, an ex-city councilman. "I told him that if he chose to, he could be part of it." Hardwick was instructed to go home and write down the details of his arrest, and as he scribbled away, he got mad.

"I realized that I couldn't live with myself if I walked away from this," he says. "People say, 'You've got a lot of courage,' but I kept thinking about other gays who could lose their jobs if they were ever caught. I didn't have a prominent position. I could afford to come out publicly."

He phoned Sweet: "Let's go for it."

His codefendant pleaded to lesser charges and split; Hardwick paid a $50 fine for possession of marijuana. That left only sodomy. The municipal court hearing was packed with gay advocates and attorneys. As the bailiff drawled Hardwick's name, there were snickers. Torrick took the stand.

"So you stood there watching and observed the sodomy without knocking on the door?" asked an attorney.

"Yes," said the officer. The arrest warrant was challenged, but the judge was quick to rule it valid:

"He went there as a result of the warrant. He was allowed in the house. He did not make an arrest as a result of the warrant, but as a result of what he saw."

In the hall, a fiftyish city plumbing inspector who had been awaiting his case in the same courtroom rushed to pump Torrick's hand. It was Hardwick's neighbor, the father of two teen-age boys. He was fed up with the naked sunbathing, the wild parties.

"I appreciate your cracking down," he said.

The case was bound over, but Fulton County District Attorney Lewis Slaton let it drop. "Sometimes I don't prosecute people for killing each other if there's a valid reason," says the veteran prosecutor, who abhors "that type of conduct among homosexuals or lesbians. But I just don't think a jury would have convicted him, from the privacy angle."

He's never used the law to prosecute a gay for simply having sex, and would prefer it as a misdemeanor, but he finds it a useful weapon to deter hookers, pimps, gay excesses in public parks and for plea bargains in more violent cases. As for its felony status, it's up to the legislature to change it. And as long as it's on the law books, the state attorney general aims to fight off all challengers.

It was Valentine's Day 1983 when Hardwick's lawyers filed in federal district court to have Georgia's sodomy law declared unconstitutional for violating his right to privacy.

"Privacy was still an open question with the court," says Kathy Wilde, an appellate whiz kid who appealed to the 11th Circuit when the case got tossed out. She courted amicus curiae briefs from several church groups, even a heterosexual couple, the "Does," who declared the law had a "chilling" effect on their connubial bliss.

As a state's attorney argued "public morality" before the three-judge federal panel, one judge leaned over the bench. "Are you aware of the facts?" he asked. "This is a case of two consenting adults in the bedroom of their home."

In a 2 to 1 decision, the court ruled that the law infringed on Hardwick's right to privacy. It was a stunning victory, but short-lived as the state appealed and the Supreme Court upheld.

Hardwick hits the club about 10 a.m., makes his shopping list and roars off to the wholesale florist. He picks a bird of paradise, some heliconia, lilies, stops to smell the mums. Two young women smile his way. He smiles back.

"Who doesn't enjoy getting cruised by beautiful women?" he winks. "I'm a flirt. It makes them feel good."

Until he moved to Miami 18 months back -- he was afraid in Atlanta -- he lived with a woman, a platonic relationship that came close to wrecking his gay identity. They were close; he felt physically attracted. "But I couldn't let it happen," he says. "I didn't want her to resent me when I wanted to see my male friends. She moved out."

After years of promiscuity, he's careful about his partners. He's known 10 friends to die from AIDS. "I hate to say it, but AIDS has had a positive effect. People in gay society are developing relationships, becoming more monogamous. It's simply because they're afraid."

He can't get the arrest off his mind. "I didn't want Torrick's job," he says. "I just wanted my privacy. Why would I spout off when he's in my bedroom trying to arrest me for a felony? It's inconsistent with my character.

"He must have stared for 35 seconds."

Is he implying a prurient interest?

"You could gather that."

Torrick breaks up laughing. "I might have stood there five seconds," he says, "because I was shocked. It sort of grossed me out."

He's short and wiry with black hair, married with two kids, from Detroit, the son of a career Ford man, who moved south when the Atlanta Police Department accepted him as a recruit in 1979. He couldn't find police work up north.

"Is he making any money off T-shirts yet?" he smirks, regretting the arrest. As written, the law is too broad, he says. "I didn't do it to get my name in the law books. I don't want my name associated with it."

He'd had his fill of quarreling gays, hookers, pimps and winos by the time his father-in-law asked him to help run a cab company. He left after four years on the force. There had been a half-dozen citizen complaints. "He was a hard-working cop, but he was badge heavy," says a former supervisor.

"Half were complaints about rudeness and the others were allegations of brutality," says Torrick, "which was just a way to make their cases look better in court. I never had a complaint from a gay."

Indeed, he moonlighted as a security guard for the Bulldog Lounge, a gay club, for $15 an hour. "They didn't bother me and I didn't bother them," he says. "If you're going to survive in a police career, you have to treat them the same as anyone else."

"He's one of the most sensitive cops to ever work the area," says Foy Nix, 41, an auto repair shop owner. "Even after he found out I was gay, he kept up the friendship. He still calls to see how I'm doing.

"Of course, I'm not a little nelly queen out on the street, and I'm treated with respect. But I don't believe he ever mistreated a gay because he was gay . . . He's a fair person."

Torrick shelled out breakfast money for winos and made sure they ate. "One guy reminded me of my grandfather, who sold his house for a quarter of its value and drank up the cash," he says.

When the cab company was sold, he interviewed with the Roswell, Ga., police. "Have you ever broken the law?" a polygraph operator asked. He flashed on the sodomy statute, which includes married couples, and asked that the question be rephrased as "a serious undetected felony," like robbing a bank. He passed and began working as a patrolman, then left to open a driver education school. Business is booming.

He's eating barbecue beneath an American flag at the Iron Skillet, a down-home cafe' in Roswell, a booming suburb with no gay pride day 20 miles from midtown Atlanta. Some say Torrick is the real hero in the case, a bona fide guardian of morality in heathen times, and locals stop by the table to shake his hand.

"How's the school, boy?" asks a portly businessman, sucking on a toothpick.

"Doing great, Gene."

"Like to send my daughter when she gets back from Europe."

He grew up in a tight-knit Polish family, the oldest of five children. There were so many aunts, uncles and cousins, the family had to rent a hall for the Christmas party. Like Hardwick, he was raised to believe boys "don't cry or hug."

He was weaned on heartland values. At 14 he and a friend were hitchhiking when a homosexual stopped to give them a ride. Moments later came the proposition. "He wanted to give us $5 to go in a gas station bathroom with him." He pulled in. "He stopped. We got out and ran." He never told his father. "I would have gotten in trouble for hitchhiking."

But he was close to his father and relished the routine of family dinners at 5:30 p.m. Sharp. "He was my role model," Torrick says .

One of four children born to a hard-drinking Miami firefighter, Hardwick doesn't remember his father ever hugging him -- they were never close -- and wonders if it has something to do with his never feeling fulfilled until he became a homosexual at 21.

"I'd see other kids with their fathers and wonder, 'What's wrong with me? Why won't he hug me?' " If his father ever told him he loved him, Hardwick doesn't recall it. "I believe the reason I'm gay is because I never had any physical contact with my father."

There were picnics in the back yard, a sandbox, big shade trees. He spent his childhood collecting snakes, iguanas, seagulls with broken wings. He dreamed of becoming a vet. He was 12 when his parents divorced, and a favorite grandmother died.

An older brother who loved his father's war stories -- they were close -- is straight. "Like his father, his brother was ready to fight at the drop of a hat," says his mother, "but Michael was gentle."

His mother remarried, as did his father. Growing up, he did drugs: pot, acid, washed down with the Beatles. It was the '60s, when life was supposed to be groovy. "But I was scared and felt I wasn't supposed to let it bother me," he says.

At Southwest High he shied from contact sports, did gymnastics (but spurned the team), dated a cheerleader and led "an active heterosexual life." After he appeared on "Donahue," he bumped into a former classmate. "I never thought you'd turn out to be gay," she gasped.

He was searching. He tried heroin, wound up in a drug rehab program, shook the habit and began counseling other kids. At 18 he took up meditation, studied Sanskrit and botany at a community college, found work in a nursery. He contemplated becoming a Buddhist monk, and three years later, on a visit to a girlfriend in Atlanta, met a man.

"I was totally straight up to that point," he says, "but there was an attraction." The words tumble out over a vodka and grapefruit juice at a fancy restaurant here. The waiters are male, gay and fawning. "We kissed," he is saying. "It felt very natural. I just wanted affection . . . It was so fulfilling to have a man who wanted to show it."

But the man had a lover. "I was devastated," he says. "I'd given up my manhood . . . " For months he fretted, in spiritual turmoil, then came to terms with his new identity and found work in a gay bar. He did landscaping on the side, tried assorted jobs, then moved to Atlanta in 1979, melted into the gay world and pulled down $600 a week tending bar.

"His father couldn't deal with it," recalls his mother. "He said it was a fad he'd outgrow." Then he died of cancer in 1981. Hardwick was there.

"No one knows what attracts one person to another," she goes on. She now volunteers to work gay hot lines and counsel parents shocked over learning their children are different. "I'm just happy I chose to be close to my children and accept them, no matter what. Parents who can't deal with it lose so much. It's been hard and painful, but I'm proud of my son."

So is the boss, a woman in her fifties. She counts the money and mans the closed-circuit TV at the club while Hardwick whips up 800 drinks a night at the horseshoe-shaped bar down below. "So they're gay," she laughs. "I always tease 'em, 'You like men, and so do I.' But, five years in this joint, and I haven't scored once."