Tall, rangy and jut-jawed, with glinting blue eyes and a Western twang, Rep. William E. Dannemeyer (R-Calif.) settles into his office sofa and explains his mission. With a few others in Congress, he says, he's standing up to "the most vicious attack on traditional family values that our society has seen in the history of our republic."

His targets: "militant" homosexuals and the homosexual "lifestyle," "movement" and "game plan."

Tomorrow the feisty crusader addresses a conference at the Sheraton Washington sponsored by the Traditional Values Coalition, a California-based group whose chairman, the Rev. Louis P. Sheldon, has vowed to launch a "national task force for the preservation of the heterosexual ethic." Gay and lesbian groups are gearing up for an evening protest march from Dupont Circle north to the hotel.

Dannemeyer's legislative fight against the spread of AIDS, he says, means that "like it or not, I'm interfacing with homosexuals. And I'll be very honest with you, in that interface, I have no intention of apologizing for affirming the heterosexual ethic."

To those in the gay community who accuse him of homophobia, he responds, "Why are you a heterophobe? What do you fear with the normal?"

He is not, he says, unsympathetic toward "these poor tormented people, these homosexuals" who listened to the "sirene call" of the sexual revolution.

"And they're lonely and they're filled with despair," he says, shaking his head. "In many cases their families have disowned them. Their loved ones, their close friends are dying, they have no place to turn to. And I've seen the tragedy in their eyes... . Several places I've been, you know, in public appearances, they organize and they shake their fists at me, and they shout at me, and they throw papers at me. And the reason they do that, I'm convinced, is that their conscience tells them they're doing something wrong. They don't like to revisit the point in their lives where they made a conscious decision to pursue this alternative lifestyle, and that really gives them psychological pain.

"And they manifest that uneasiness by exhibiting antisocial behavior in my direction."

With the ongoing House ethics committee investigation of Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) and other imbroglios, homosexuality is a hot topic on Capitol Hill. When Dannemeyer put his famous "What Homosexuals Do" statement into the Congressional Record last June, one Hill staffer reported that the item was so popular you couldn't find a copy of the Record anywhere without those pages ripped out. And when Sen. William L. Armstrong (R-Colo.) rose on the floor in September to demand heatedly if the Americans With Disabilities Act covered homosexuals, bisexuals, exhibitionists, pedophiles "and similar," Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) quipped later in the Press Gallery, "Can you believe Armstrong? It was almost pornographic!"

If the tale of Frank hiring a male prostitute as his personal aide has veered between tragedy and titillation, Sen. Jesse Helms's onslaughts against federal support for anything vaguely homosexual have seemed cultural heroism or low comedy -- depending on your point of view. In Senate debate last fall, the North Carolina Republican railed against the "disgusting and illegal practices" of homosexuals; and earlier the "Helms transvestite amendment," as analysts at the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force dubbed it, stipulated that transvestism, in and of itself, couldn't qualify as a "handicap" under the Fair Housing Amendments Act. (Helms won, 89-2.)

But while Dannemeyer, Helms and a few other legislators see themselves manning the ramparts of Western civilization in the service of "our Judeo-Christian heritage" -- a favorite phrase -- not everyone agrees. "The motivation is simply hatred and bigotry," says Eric Rosenthal, political director of the Human Rights Campaign Fund, the nation's largest gay and lesbian lobbying organization. "In America today," observes Urvashi Vaid, executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, "it's still okay to be anti-gay. It's perfectly socially acceptable. People are encouraged to be homophobic -- there's no condemnation as in the case of racism or antisemitism."

Rosenthal believes, however, that the passionate convictions of Dannemeyer and others will "ultimately work to our benefit because, increasingly, they're viewed by their colleagues as so obsessed and so extreme on these issues." Yet on Sept. 29, when the Senate acted against Helms to strip much of the power from his amendment forbidding federal funding of "obscene" art, the senators left in "homoeroticism" -- along with sadomasochism and the sexual exploitation of children -- as examples of obscenity. "It was disturbing that homophobia remained part of federal legislation," says Rosenthal, who says he thinks there's nothing necessarily obscene about eroticism, whether it's homo or hetero.

Whatever politesse is observed publicly in Congress, the standard insensitivities continue behind the scenes on the Hill. "My nickname for homosexuals is 'mo -- you know, the 'mos," says Dannemeyer's press aide, Paul Mero. "You may be a faggot or something," snarled Rep. Gus Savage (D-Ill.) at reporters, according to an account in the Washington Blade, a gay newspaper. And Rep. Chuck Douglas (R-N.H.) came under fire in the Boston Globe for quipping that his colleague Frank's admitted homosexuality "gives you a little feel" for his character.

On the other hand, a certain courtesy has been displayed by some whom the gay and lesbian community view as political enemies. When Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) set out to promote the House version of the Helms arts amendment, he telephoned Frank and Rep. Gerry E. Studds (D-Mass.), who is also gay, "to assure them personally that nothing that I was doing was an attack on them or their lifestyle... . Homosexuals have been with us since the days of the Bible. This is not something that's going to be stamped out by government. We believe in individual freedom in this country!"

Rohrabacher then proceeded with an attack on the House floor against the National Endowment for the Arts for sponsoring "drawings of homosexual orgies, bestiality and a Statue of Liberty turned into a transvestite, complete with male sex organs." Rohrabacher's insistence that it's federal funding for such drawings that he opposes rather than the drawings themselves, or even the orgies -- a view many Americans share -- is considered a distinction without a difference by gay and lesbian activists. They find his views alarming.

Most members of Congress apparently would prefer that the issue simply disappear. Dannemeyer himself says that "they don't want to deal with it. It isn't that they're for homosexuals. They're just not comfortable talking about it." When possible, his aide Mero says, members will take cover in procedural thickets to avoid going on the record against gays -- a growing political bloc. But when legislation is clear-cut, Dannemeyer and Helms tend to win by high margins, perhaps, as several Hill insiders point out, because the pols fear negative advertising of the "SEN. WACKO BACKS GAYS" variety.

The issue "scares the heck out of members of Congress," says Rosenthal. "People like Dannemeyer and Helms intimidate their colleagues into voting against us, but most members know that's not what they ought to do, and they really go out of their way to avoid being homophobic. I think there's an underlying sense of fairness in the American people. They don't necessarily understand lesbians and gays very well, but deep down is a strong opposition to discrimination."

Even so, the Hate Crimes Statistics Act, a national data collection bill that includes hate crimes against homosexuals, passed the House last June, 383 to 29, but has stalled in the Senate because of Helms's threat to attach an amendment saying, "The homosexual movement threatens the strength and survival of the American family," and stating that it is the sense of the Senate that state laws prohibiting sodomy "should be enforced."

Actually, the number of "extreme homophobes" in Congress is quite small, according to Peri Jude Radecic, legislative director of the Gay and Lesbian Task Force. Along with Helms and Armstrong on the Senate side, she includes only Sen. Gordon J. Humphrey (R-N.H.), who became incensed at a federally funded "sexuality education" course manual that attacked the idea that homosexuality is "immoral, evil or sick." According to the manual, "the problem is a homophobic culture."

Says Humphrey: "Everybody's kind of sick of the subject at this point. My involvement in this issue has been ad hoc and specific. I was upset by the manual and sought to block its further use. I think most Americans would oppose the use of federal funds to propagate a point of view which most of them reject ... that homosexuality is normal, natural and healthy." His amendment to the Health and Human Services Department's appropriations bill passed the Senate, 85 to 13, on Sept. 21, but failed to clear the House a week later when opponents were able to muddy the waters procedurally.

On the House side, Radecic considers as enemies, with Dannemeyer and Rohrabacher, Rep. Robert K. Dornan (R-Calif.), whom "you can always expect to go to the floor and take a jab at the gay and lesbian community." She also includes Douglas for his "pretty awful statement" about Frank, and Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.), who rose on the House floor Oct. 3 to demand "how far do we go down that slippery road of homosexual rights? Do we go so far as to destroy religious freedom in this country?"

As it happened, Burton was in the majority that day when the House, by a 262-to-154 vote, supported a measure to prohibit the District of Columbia from imposing the city's gay civil rights law on religious educational institutions such as Georgetown University. "I've had so many homosexual friends in my life," says Dornan. "A lot of homosexuals rap me, but then they wonder why I'm so eager to spend money on AZT {the only licensed drug for treating AIDS}. I figure I'm not a Christian worth a tinker's damn if I don't say 'there but for the grace of God go I.' "

Fortunately for the gay and lesbian lobby, says Radecic, "we have a nice high number of members of Congress who we can count on to vote the right way all the time." In the House, for example, 151 members score an A in Radecic's book, while there are only a dozen or so F's and many of those aren't vocal. Most members, she says, have a "mixed record. The {gay and lesbian} community's power on Capitol Hill is growing." One problem: "We need to make sure that gay Republicans come out of the closet and deal with their party."

While Democrats tend to line up behind the gay and lesbian lobby on civil rights -- Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), chairman of the Democratic Caucus, keynoted the Human Rights Campaign Fund's black-tie dinner last fall -- Republicans have been divided. This may be changing. Republican National Chairman Lee Atwater went to California in September to praise GOP leaders there -- including Gov. George Deukmejian and Sen. Pete Wilson -- for derailing anti-gay resolutions at a party convention. Atwater invoked the "politics of inclusion" and declared that "there is no place in our party for bigotry."

One of the defeated resolutions -- that the state GOP oppose efforts to give sexual-preference protection as a civil right -- was Dannemeyer's. "It's tough to be opposed by the current governor and the guy who wants to be governor," the congressman says ruefully. "The AIDS plague," says Dornan with typical panache, "is going to make him {Atwater} sorry he ever said anything about sodomy clubs being part of the Republican politics of inclusion."

So where is all this going?

Thomas E. Mann of the Brookings Institution, a former director of the American Political Science Association, thinks that "deeply seated values and ideologies are at work" in Dannemeyer and others who "feel their fundamental values threatened by such {homosexual} behavior, and by the seemingly growing acceptance of it." One possible irony: "You often find opposition to a particular set of social trends most vocal and intense as national opinion is actually moving in a more liberalizing, moderating direction. Not that people embrace the behavior, but that they're somewhat more tolerant, and don't believe in using the power of the state to regulate it... . Then you get the rear-guard conservative opposition most vocally expressed."

As gays and lesbians increasingly come out of the closet, says Vaid, "we become more human to the average American, and not just this strange person who lives in a big city, but someone who might be in their own family, or lives in their neighborhood, or somebody they work with." Says Rosenthal, "The gay and lesbian community ultimately is going to win, and all Dannemeyer and Helms are doing is delaying that date."

Dannemeyer is the author of a book on homosexuality, "Shadow in the Land," published last October by Ignatius Press in San Francisco. "Sexual behavior," he writes, "has always been covered by law, not only in Western society but also in Eastern society. Indeed, there is no society in the history of the world where there were not some rules governing sexual conduct -- with the possible exception of Sodom."

In an interview in his office, the six-term congressman from northern Orange County explains that what bothers him is not what people do in the privacy of their bedrooms, but that "their game plan is to go around and adopt homosexuality as a civil right... . They want America to treat homosexuality as just another thing -- no big deal."

Exactly, says Rosenthal. "Just as women and blacks and Jews and others have gained their legal rights, we're going to do it too."

Dannemeyer, 60, is married and has a son, two daughters and four grandchildren. He's a member of the board of directors of the Southern California District of the Lutheran Church, Missouri Synod. There seems a certain sadness in him as he contemplates what he sees as America's decline. In floor debate Sept. 13, he said that the collapse of the Weimar Republic depicted in the movie "Cabaret" included "the growth of the toleration of homosexuality in Germany... . Let us not kid ourselves. The toleration of pornography and homosexuality is not ... the cause of the decline of a civilization; it is the symptom of a moral decay in a society that has lost the ability to say that there are standards {and} valid, traditional family values."

Radecic says Dannemeyer's invocation of Germany "frightened me. Jesus never said anything in the Bible about homosexuality, and to me that's the bottom line."

"What Homosexuals Do," part of a speech of Dannemeyer's that he placed in the Congressional Record, drew fire from several of his colleagues, including Rep. Andrew Jacobs Jr. (D-Ind.), who found it "unspeakable." Says Dannemeyer, a bit defensively: "Sure, it's frank language, {but} I didn't make that up -- I quoted two sources, homosexual publications, as to what they do. If the American people are going to be asked to accept this lifestyle, we ought to at least know what they do. How else can you make a judgment as to whether you want to accept it?"

The congressman had little interest in homosexuality, he explains, until his assignment to the subcommittee on health and the environment brought him to an examination of the AIDS epidemic. He wanted America to "adopt a public health response rather than a civil rights response," which he says the gay and lesbian lobby pushes because it "fears that if we report them to {the U.S. Public Health Service} there will be contact tracing ... an invasion of their civil liberties. And I say to them, we have been doing just that for decades in this country to control curable venereal disease, why should we do any different with this noncurable disease?"

"That's totally off base," says Rosenthal. "Dannemeyer has opposed every single public health consensus about fighting AIDS from every responsible public health official, from {former surgeon general C. Everett} Koop to the AIDS commission to the National Academy of Sciences. On AIDS prevention and research, the gay and lesbian community has been lined up with doctors and public health officials, and Dannemeyer has been on the other side from day one."

In Dannemeyer's view, homosexuality is, psychologically, a "deep pathology," but one that can in effect be cured because "counseling can steer people away from that lifestyle." As he conceded in his Congressional Record insert, however, "All the legal and historical precedents in the world would become starkly irrelevant were homosexuals to prove that their behavior was ... genetic or hereditary or somehow show that it is physiologically determined." Then, he pointed out, homosexuals could "legitimately say that they have no choice in the matter."

In fact, nobody knows for sure what causes homosexuality -- or heterosexuality, either -- but among American psychiatrists, according to Jeffrey S. Akman, assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at George Washington University, "the most contemporary thinking is that it is not something that is curable, not something that is reversible. What can be changed in some people is the actual behavior. You can make them have sex with someone of the opposite sex."

As for homophobia, Dannemeyer's former House colleague and fellow right-winger Robert Bauman (R-Md.), who in 1980 was revealed to have solicited sex from a 16-year-old boy and who went through an emotional odyssey in coming to terms with his homosexuality, thinks it's "more virulent now that AIDS has stoked the people who would naturally be that way, and who vocally use the issue as a club against gays." It may manifest itself, says Eugene Frank, a private psychiatrist on the teaching faculty at Georgetown University, through the widely recognized phenomenon of projective identification. "When we find unacceptable parts of ourselves," he says, "we can unconsciously locate them in other people and direct our aggression towards those projected parts of ourselves in others without having to feel guilt or shame in ourselves." More simply: "We can hate someone else without hating ourselves."

Such speculation notwithstanding, Dannemeyer and others see their mission clearly. Last October the California Coalition for Traditional Values -- Louis Sheldon's mother ship organization -- which holds that homosexuality is learned behavior, held a symposium featuring discussions on topics such as "Reparative Therapy for the Homosexual" and "Criteria for Successful Treatment Towards Heterosexuality." Dannemeyer and U.S. Civil Rights Commission Chairman William B. Allen both gave speeches; the congressman warned that civil rights ordinances protecting homosexuals would result in petitions for legalizing homosexual marriage and the adoption of children by homosexual couples.

As is now standard, that meeting was marked by strong protests by the gay and lesbian community, and some 40 people were arrested. Tomorrow's conference, says Sheldon, will be attended by therapists, politicians, "recovering homosexuals" and "activists from around the country who are presently addressing the politicized homosexual agenda." He has dubbed the event "a national summit meeting on homosexuality."

"These people," says Vaid, "are positioning themselves as the new Moral Majority, and we think they're very dangerous for all people concerned about civil liberties." Joining members of several gay and lesbian groups in tomorrow's protest will be John Buchanan of People for the American Way, the Rev. William Sloan Coffin Jr. of SANE/Freeze, and Bryant Welch of the American Psychological Association.

Dannemeyer himself acknowledges the growing power of those he views with such alarm. "I have developed, sir," he says somberly, "a profound respect for the political clout of the homosexual community in this country."