In front of the Supreme Court, a placard-bearing citizen and gay-rights activist is exercising his First Amendment rights. In the freest and bluntest of speech, his message reads: "Sodomy -- a pleasure for straights, a crime for queers."

That's not quite the language -- but it was the meaning -- the jus- tices delivered by the 5-4 ruling in 1986 that upheld a Georgia anti- sodomy law. In that state, along with 24 others, including the District of Columbia, oral and anal sex is a felony. In Bowers v. Hardwick, a police officer entered the Atlanta home of Michael Hard- wick, who failed to pay a small fine in 1982 for public drinking. The officer found Hardwick in the bedroom sexually engaged with another man. An arrest was made. Hardwick was having felonious sex.

It sounds comic, unless the laugh is on you, or a family member, neighbor or coworker. Which means that everyone is hurt by the absurd law. It was that feeling and more that drew about 3,000 advocates of lesbian and gay rights to the steps of the Supreme Court. More than 100 club-bearing police blocked the entrance to the court. While the well-mannered crowd called out such chants as "Equal Rights for Gay Cops," others went through the line nonviolently to be arrested for civil disobedience. Nearly 600 were hauled off and booked, a number that broke the 1987 protest record of 557 arrests at the CIA in April.

Two days before the Supreme Court demonstration, more than 200,000 citizens marched from the White House to the Capitol. The outpouring equaled the 1963 civil rights demonstration here. Gays and lesbians are out of the closet as never before, while much of the rest of the nation remains in the dark on how to respond. The Washington march was staged for the same political reason behind the historic civil-rights protest: a grieved minority demands that the majority wake up to the grievances.

It's been 10 years since Anita Bryant campaigned against a Dade County, Fla., law that forbade discrimination against gays. Tropical Storm Anita, which eventually blew out to sea, was one of the first national focusings on gay rights. It was also in the pre-AIDS era. In 1981, when the disease was first identified, the U.S. Public Health Service spent $200,000 on the problem. This year it is $790 million.

The jump sounds immense, leading to a seemingly reasonable question -- with the government spending all that money on the problem, why are the gays upset? One reason is that 40,000 AIDS cases have been reported in the past six years, while in the next four, according the Public Health Service, there will be a nearly sevenfold increase to 270,000 cases. Budgets in the billions, not millions, are needed.

Dying AIDS patients who paraded in wheelchairs in front of the White House that week -- the majority of AIDS patients are gay men -- knew that 21,000 Ameri- cans had died of the disease before Ronald Reagan delivered his first speech on what solutions he would propose. That was May of this year, with Reagan beginning the speech with these urgent words, "Many years ago when I worked for General Electric Theater ..."

In "And the Band Played On: Politics, People and the AIDS Epidemic," a book published this month, Randy Shilts, a reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle, writes that "Reagan's speech was a political solution to a public-health problem." There were "no dramatic calls for education and prevention programs -- those things the public-health experts said would combat the epidemic most effectively."

The president's reluctance to involve himself in the gravest health crisis of his administration, and possibly the century, is balanced somewhat by the activism of Ron Reagan Jr. The former ballet dancer is the narrator of a PBS documentary, "AIDS: Changing the Rules."

Change them it does. The show, scheduled to run in early Novem- ber, is enswirled in the kind of controversy that marks all of the AIDS debate. In a segment on safe sex, a condom is put on a banana. This offended the International Banana Association, a trade group representing eight U.S. import companies. An association official has protested to PBS. He charged that putting a condom on a banana "constitutes arbitrary and reckless disregard for the unsavory associ- ation that will be drawn by the public and the damage to our industry that will result therefrom."

An epidemic has been raging, death rates are rising and what's happening? The Supreme Court backs cops snooping in bedrooms, the president spins tales of his GE days, and the banana industry goes up its tree.

It's all good for laughs. If you're into sick jokes.