The controversy over the National Endowment for the Arts has been pushed into the back pages by the crisis in the Persian Gulf, but in the quarters where such business matters, it seethes as furiously as ever. Of late it has taken a new turn: Now the effort to bring NEA funding policies under some form of public control is being depicted as a campaign to deny homosexual artists their "right" to government funding.

This argument cropped up in a couple of places last week. The "performance artist" Holly Hughes, speaking to a reporter for the Baltimore Sun, complained that she hasn't enough time these days to develop new work because "I'm spending all of my energy defending my art, defending performance art as a genre and defending the right of gay and lesbian people to make work and receive funding for it." Meantime the writer David Leavitt, who is known for his depictions of homosexual life and love, published a long article to the same effect in the New York Times. Under the inflammatory headline "Fears That Haunt a Scrubbed America" -- not, presumably, Leavitt's doing, but an accurate reflection of the tone of his piece -- Leavitt wrote:

"From Robert Mapplethorpe to Holly Hughes, the message is ringing out loud and clear. Gay and lesbian artists who deal frankly with sexuality are being singled out and refused grant money they were awarded by peer panels, as part of a conscious effort to censor, humiliate and discourage all artists whose work challenges the right wing's rigid notions of 'correct' sexual behavior."

Leavitt then went on to recite a litany of grievances, some real and some fancied, running the whole length of the field from "artists" deprived of "rights" to discrimination against homosexuals to straight society's "deeper fear, a fear of the underground sexual desires every individual harbors ... and for which homosexuals traditionally have been made into a catch-all symbol." He made much of "the real crisis at hand," which in his judgment is not the squabble over "unanswerable questions" involving definitions of obscenity and art, but "the extreme right wing's determination to terrorize an already ambivalent American population by manipulating its entrenched fears of anything foreign, unfamiliar or explicitly sexual."

If this sounds a trifle hysterical to you, well, it does to me too. Unquestionably, though, it reflects the views of many homosexual writers or artists who have spoken publicly on the NEA controversy and its various spinoffs. Because three of the four "artists" who were denied NEA grants that peer review had approved are homosexual, the inference has been drawn -- and passionately expressed -- that an anti-homosexual crusade is underway: not merely in the extreme right wing, not merely in Congress, not merely in the NEA, but in society as a whole.

Perhaps this is so. The lot of homosexuals has never been easy, they have indeed from time to time been singled out as scapegoats in this country as in virtually every other, they by their very nature arouse deep emotional reactions in many who find their sexual behavior unnatural or repugnant. No doubt Leavitt is right when he says, of allegations that homosexual writing and art seek to "recruit" young people: "Of course, to any gay person who, as a frightened and confused teenager, searched desperately for books or films or television shows that offered even a mention of homosexual experience to latch on to, the idea of gay 'recruitment' is laughable. It is also profoundly insulting."

Granted all of that, it nonetheless is melodramatic and self-pitying to claim, as Leavitt does, that we are seeing in the denial of NEA funds to three homosexual "artists" a mirror image of Adolf Hitler's repression of "degenerate art." To be sure, just about any American minority group or special interest that suffers real or imagined discrimination sooner or later tosses Hitler's name into the fray, but a writer of Leavitt's gifts really should know better; what is happening is not Hitler on the Potomac, but a strong and apparently widespread reaction against the dissemination of sexually explicit material of all kinds in society at large.

To say this is not to defend Sen. Jesse Helms, who is indefensible. It is rather to say that what Leavitt and Hughes choose to interpret as persecution is in fact a legitimate response to what many Americans, myself most emphatically among them, regard as an irresponsible and improper expenditure of public funds. Leavitt and Hughes to the contrary, no "right" exists for public support of art or writing of any sort, whether homosexual or lesbian or heterosexual or hermaphroditic. It is a privilege that was granted by Congress a quarter-century ago and that is now being reexamined, as in fact all public policy periodically should be; that the immediate agent of reconsideration should be Jesse Helms is admittedly an embarrassment to those of us who would like to see serious discussion of the question, but the question matters all the same and to pass off the views of those who raise it as "Nazism" is no more helpful (or mature) than any of Helms's thunderations.

As to the specific issue of the "rights" of homosexual writers and artists, I know of no conscientious critic of the NEA who disputes their existence; they are written in the Constitution. But these artists must try to understand that if they insist on being explicit and aggressive in the expression of a homosexual viewpoint, they are going to meet with hostility from many Americans. This may be unfair, but it is a fact of life; many Americans -- many millions of them, beyond a shadow of doubt -- find homosexuality offensive and do not take kindly to what they regard as homosexual advocacy.

Holly Hughes, for one, seems to understand this. Even as she moaned to the Sun about her nonexistent "right" to government funding, she said: "If you're a lesbian and you're out there and open about it, you don't have to work very hard at being outrageous." Right: Homosexuality runs against the cultural grain, and in the view of many members of that majority culture is, in and of itself, "outrageous." For the men and women whose preference is homosexuality, this is a terrible burden to bear; but human nature being such as it is, they are likely to be bearing the burden into the future and they don't do themselves much good by claiming that Adolf Hitler created it.

If anything, the burden may have gotten somewhat lighter in recent years. The campaign for homosexual rights has paid off in any number of ways, from the stronger legal protection homosexuals now enjoy in many jurisdictions to the open and unapologetic presence of homosexuals in cultural life at all levels to the calm acceptance by many Americans of homosexual couples in permanent living arrangements. David Leavitt to the contrary, middle-class America is no "scrubbed, manicured neighborhood" where homosexuals are barred and reviled; on the whole the country has done a pretty good job of raising its consciousness in this department, even if it still has a long way to go.

What we are talking about here is not an anti-homosexual crusade, but a widespread conviction that government has no business underwriting sexually explicit and politically biased "art" -- whatever its sexuality, whatever its bias. This is what Leavitt and Hughes, for whatever reason, cannot or will not understand.