CHERRY GROVE, N.Y. -- At the Great South Bay dock, ferryboat passengers alight onto a planked walkway. A morning sun casts brilliancies on the water, like a projector beaming light on summer's early screen. The half-hour ferry trip is from Sayville on the Suffolk County south shore of Long Island to this resort community, one of 18 villages on the 32 barrier-beach miles of Fire Island.

Cherry Grove, with 260 houses, a post office, shops and a summer population of about 900, has been known since the 1920s as the vacation capital of the East Coast gay world. Back when closets were full and coming out was an act of social suicide, Cherry Grove gave to gays what Palm Beach provided the rich: a secure refuge to relax among themselves and escape the hostilities of the outside world.

Cherry Grove typified what the gay poet W.H. Auden called "the polis of our friends." Options were here. On the beaches a few summering males with bronzed tanfastic naked bodies walked hand in hand. Others came for the quiet and a chance to read, rest or meditate. Despite the false stereotype of sexual abandon, Cherry Grove was a place of normalcy: people coming together to share a sense of repose and self-understanding not easily found elsewhere.

Good times are now old times. Last Memorial Day a large turnout of mourners gathered in a community center to remember 19 Cherry Grove residents who had died over the winter. Most had AIDS. "They're dying," said a shopkeeper, a long-term resident who said he is one of Cherry Grove's small percentage of straights. He and others believe that although AIDS has changed the local style of living -- anonymous sex is the equivalent of Russian roulette with five bullets -- another shifting is on view: a spirit of community-mindedness.

Camaraderie used to bring Cherry Grove together; now it is compassion also. The village's community arts project now raises money for a medical clinic and health and safety equipment. Throughout the summer, volunteer physicians are to take turns staffing the clinic, called "Belly Acres." The unfolding story here, as elsewhere among the nation's gays and lesbians, is that AIDS has also brought an opportunity for selflessness that wasn't there before. The dying are not being abandoned, the dead not forgotten.

With the emergency switch having been tripped by AIDS, gay solidarity gives homosexuals a claim for public respect. Defamations are being heard again that AIDS and homosexuality are somehow linked to "perversion and promiscuity."

This cheap moralizing revives the distortion that homosexuals are defiant sinners and here comes AIDS as proof that God's punishment is being wrathfully applied, come hell or high bathhouse water. Theologian Daniel Maguire correctly asks: "Is the homosexually oriented quest for intimacy contrary to the laws of nature or simply to the current customs of our tribe?"

Ascribing perversion is one of many cruder forms of hysteria now on view. A subtler kind appeared when the Reagan administration refused to include gays on a new presidential commission on AIDS. With gays the majority of AIDS patients, omitting them is an admission that this administration's mind is closed. This is a crowd that finds AIDS funny. Last August, The Washington Post reported that in a discussion of Moammar Gadhafi, Ronald Reagan told George Shultz, "Why not invite Gadhafi to San Francisco, he likes to dress up so much." Shultz, laughing, retorted, "Why don't we give him AIDS!"

The National Gay and Lesbian Task Force reported last month a more than double increase in the number of violent incidents and harassments against homosexuals from 1985 to 1986. The Task Force documented nearly 5,000 incidents, a low number because many go unreported. "Despite the seriousness of antigay violence," said Kevin Berrill of the task force, "virtually nothing has been done by the federal government to study or remedy the problem."

A group of 64 brave homosexuals was arrested last week for civil disobedience in front of the White House. Lisa Keen, the managing editor of The Washington Blade, a weekly that has been published in the capital for 18 years, says she was "struck by the diversity of the demonstrators, from staunch Republicans to liberal Democrats. They had come together in a remarkable closeness."

The same maturity can be seen at Cherry Grove. To see only the sexual life of gays and lesbians -- which dominates them no more or less than it does for heterosexuals -- is to miss the humanity of a community taking shape.

1987, Washington Post Writers Group