She stood on the platform and looked out into the day. It was October and growing colder and in the front rows the men sat small and shrunken beneath their blankets, the men with the thinning hair and the spindly arms and the flat faces of people too sick and exhausted to show what they are feeling or perhaps to feel anything at all.

They were dying and in a place of honor for it, sitting up front on the day of the 1987 March on Washington, the one the country barely noticed. And gay activist Torie Osborne looked at those faces and then up and beyond them, to the field of bodies stretched out down the Mall. Here was the present and the future. Here were those who would soon be dead, and beyond them more men -- thousands of men -- who now looked healthy and strong but would soon be wrapped in blankets themselves. Here were the women who were being drawn to care for the men, drawn out of their separate world and into organizations that united gay men and lesbians for the first time. Here was the present and the future, the death that could not be stopped and the anger rolling out behind it.

"When I stood on that stage, that was when I knew this was an unstoppable force," she says. "I knew this was unstoppable."

Whether you support gay rights or not, whether you are gay or you consider homosexuality a perversion, it is inescapable that today is the gay moment. It is apparent everywhere in the culture. Two women lovers go to their prom together. A new president embraces gay rights for soldiers, then stumbles in an unseemly brawl with his own militaryleaders. Leading fashion designers use drag queens to model their clothes. Gossip columns no longer comment on the fact that Martina Navratilova is gay -- she has become just one more celebrity whose romantic life is chronicled with deadpan attentiveness. The New York City schools chancellor is fired over curriculum changes that include information about gay families. Scientists debate whether there is a biological cause of homosexuality. Statisticians debate how many of us are gay. The Pulitzer Prize goes to a play that takes AIDS and homosexuality as a window into the American culture. "The Crying Game," a movie that revolves elliptically around a gay love affair, is the most discussed film of the year.

Just as AIDS abbreviates the human lifespan, so too has it distorted historical time, allowing a movement to grow at a pace no one could have predicted.

History is like memory. The mechanics are the same. Both are stored and retrieved in snapshots, moments of definition, of transcendent drama, of small enlightenments.

Before he began chaining himself to buildings and getting dragged off to jail, Peter Staley wore a suit and a tie and an expression of earnest ambition. He was the kind of man the early '80s were supposed to be all about. He was in his twenties, making "gobs" of money working long hours as a yuppie bond trader for Morgan Guaranty, obedient to the protocols of the acquisition of money. He was "as in the closet as you can get."

And then, one day in 1987, he got the flier announcing a protest by a group he had never heard of. "Everybody on the trading floor had these fliers and there were some rather vile discussions about AIDS, so I did what I always did when I heard the jokes -- I just gritted my teeth and had this silent rage I couldn't do anything about."

But that night he watched the news reports on the demonstration those fliers had announced. A new militant group, the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT-UP), had staged a protest; Peter Staley, a gay man who had known for two years that he was HIV-positive but had told almost nobody, certainly nobody who worked on the Street, saw a small group of people sit down and refuse to move. "On Wall Street. On all three networks. With the media basically sympathizing and saying the FDA was slow and Burroughs Wellcome shouldn't be charging this much for the first drug for AIDS. I just thought it was such a show of power.

"I was at the next meeting, and I didn't stop going."

"It became everything for me," says Staley, who had before turned to the gay world solely for parties. But ACT-UP "joined the social and political, where there was not political before. It was one-stop shopping. It became a replacement for the bars. It became the place you made your friends or where you found your one-night stand if you wanted that. It was your power base and your place from which to effect change, which is what brought us all there to begin with."

Within a year Staley had quit his job and, thanks to the glory days of big money, could afford to be a full-time activist. He got arrested in New York. He got arrested in Washington.

Two years later, the one-time bond trader with the pricey suits and the million-dollar portfolios was heading up a commando team that wrapped Jesse Helms's home in a gigantic inflatable condom.

May 21, 1966, Armed Services Day, the first gay-pride demonstration in America. It was planned as a motorcade through the streets of Los Angeles. The issue then, as now, was discrimination against gays in the military.

A big turnout was hoped for. For three weeks in advance, gay activism pioneer Harry Hay leafleted the bars and bathhouses.

The Los Angeles Times decided the event would merit coverage only if people got hurt. No one got hurt. And so perhaps the only surviving written record appears in the gay newsletter Tangents: "With riders visibly tense, the cars pulled into formation down Cahuenga Boulevard, past the Hollywood Bowl, to head east on Sunset Blvd. ... Mexican women with bulging shopping bags and wayward youngsters barely noticed or understood the signs. Servicemen gawked and shrugged; a few clutched their fists at their sides helplessly. At Pershing Square crackpots interrupted in their harangues shouted louder."

The motorcade consisted of 13 cars.

First, picture Urvashi Vaid. A tiny, wiry lesbian. A woman one can easily imagine transformed into a small animal (if animals could have strong political passions), something with shining fur and darting eyes, something intelligent and focused with a heartbeat so fast you can barely feel it.

Now picture the FBI. The building like a gigantic cinder block with windows. G-men. The Untouchables. Somewhere, all those decades of files. J. Edgar Hoover (in a suit, of course -- what were you thinking?).

Now combine the images.

Even Vaid couldn't do that. She was standing there, next to FBI Director William Sessions, at the first anniversary celebration of the passage of the 1990 Hate Crimes Statistics Act, which included the category of gay-bashing, and she couldn't believe it.

When George Bush had signed the bill in the White House Rose Garden, Vaid was not invited because she had heckled Bush at an earlier speech. But there she was, at the FBI. A guest of the FBI.

"I thought, 'Wow! J. Edgar Hoover must be turning over in his grave!' "

Jackie was supposed to be a lesbian.

That was Roseanne Arnold's original concept for the role of her sister, played by actress Laurie Metcalf, in the dark comedy that would become television's most popular show. Arnold's real-life sister, Geraldine, is a lesbian. Much of the rest of the show was autobiographical -- why not this?

In the room where Arnold proposed this, there was an embarrassed silence. It was 1987. The show was not yet in pilot. Objections were raised. Would it be unacceptably rude? Why risk turning off a large segment of viewers? And so Jackie wound up being a man-crazy neurotic who jumps from one abusive relationship to another.

The producers' caution was validated the following season when "thirtysomething" tried a brief scene with two shirtless men in a double bed and for this indiscretion forfeited a million dollars in advertising. The gay characters were written out of the show, and the offending snippet became non-history, scissored out of the reruns.

Three seasons passed. It was summer 1992 at a staff meeting in Roseanne Arnold's Brentwood, Calif., home. Roseanne proposed that the character of Nancy, played by Sandra Bernhard, reveal that she is a lesbian.

There was an embarrassed silence.

The objection: realism. Executive producer Jay Daniel pointed out that Nancy had a husband, Arnie. Would this make sense? Would it seem real?

Hey, that's life, Roseanne said. That's how it really happens. She suggested a line of dialogue: Someone would tell Nancy, "Hey, maybe it's just a phase." And Nancy would respond, "Arnie was just a phase."

Everyone laughed. The line was written into the show. Nancy came out as a lesbian whose lover was, of all people, big-haired boy-toy Morgan Fairchild.

No public outrage.

No lost advertising.

No big deal.

In the first week of October 1969, Time magazine discovered gay people. The cover headline was "The Homosexual, Newly Visible, Newly Understood." The story painted a largely bleak portrait of a subculture of self-loathing misfits ("homosexuality is a serious and sometimes crippling maladjustment ...").

The final words of the story:

"The challenge to American society is simultaneously to devise civilized ways of discouraging the condition and to alleviate the anguish of those who cannot be helped, or do not wish to be."

When she finally walked into the room, it all looked surprisingly familiar, like one of those PTA meetings she'd gone to over the years, except that everyone was a little older and a little grayer.

Sometimes, she knows, parents walk around the block again and again before they can enter such a room. Mitzi Henderson and her husband did no unnecessary walking, but opening the door was not easy. For five years they had been keeping their secret. They had been told by their small-town Minnesota minister, so kindly, so definitively, that he could not help them meet other parents in the same situation, it was just too controversial to talk about. They were still certain there was something wrong with them. Something must be broken in their family, in themselves, and their son was certainly doomed to an unhappy, hidden life.

But now it was 1983, they had left Winona, Minn., for Palo Alto, Calif., and they opened the door.

"It was exhilarating, that's the only term I can use," says Henderson. "It was liberating. Here were people who loved their kids, who cared about them, who felt it was important to educate themselves and the community. We were still very closeted. I still hadn't talked to anyone outside the family. It really took meeting people, face to face. It took putting a human face on this."

Mitzi Henderson is now national president of Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays -- P-FLAG. Her son is now a lawyer and has been living with another man for the past five years. This January she went back to Winona, to her son's high school, and spoke to a student assembly about homosexuality and the family. The students had invited her.

The new ads for Banana Republic show men touching men and women touching women. When Kevyn Aucoin, a gay New York makeup artist, first saw the pictures, he wept.

"It was so powerful," he says. "I realized, the world was changing."

The beating was brief, but long enough to bloody his face. In the bathroom, Martin Duberman washed off the blood, then returned to the room, certain the man who had attacked him in front of his entire therapy group would be gone. No one in the room had tried to stop the assault, but surely the therapist would not allow the attacker to remain after what he had done.

Duberman returned. The room was silent. The man was still there.

"The therapist finally looked at me and he said, 'Well, Martin. You finally got what you've been waiting for. Now maybe you will cease to be the defiant human being you are.' "

That was it. Duberman's obstinacy was the cause of the beating and the cause of his stubborn case of homosexuality. If he would change his attitude, he could change his sexual orientation. "The only reason you have not been cured," his therapist liked to tell him, "is because you are a defiant man."

The session continued.

But the world changed.

As the gay rights movement found its voice, the historian and playwright left his therapist and began to focus on the history of gay men and lesbians. He founded the Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies at the City University of New York. He wrote his autobiography, called "Cures." As the academic world began to focus on what it called the marginalized communities, history's victims, gay studies went from being a subject of derision at faculty meetings to an academic trend.

The long beating was coming to an end.

It was 1974, and Roger Wilkins, the civil rights pioneer who was writing for the New York Times editorial page, thought he should do some reporting about the gay rights movement. He asked a friend to lunch. The friend, he knew, could tell him what he needed to know. They sat down. They ordered food. They talked about everything but gay rights.

"We talked about prison reform and New York politics and Gamblers Anonymous, until I could finally rev up my courage to say, 'Would you be offended if I probed a little about gay politics and how it came about you decided to come out?' "

The friend laughed and said of course. And Roger, he said, "This is the first time we've known each other that you seemed uncomfortable."

When lunch was over, Wilkins told his friend, "I have learned something at this lunch. I know now how uncomfortable whites were coming to me in the early '50s and '60s to ask me about civil rights."

It was the first time Wilkins understood that gay rights was a parallel struggle to the one he had fought. Just as divisive. Just as inevitable.

A social movement is defined as much by its opposition as by itself. The gay moment is also the anti-gay moment.

The Rev. Ty Beeson does not want to be written off as a "bigot, a Nazi, a homophobe, a right-wing radical Christian." Even when he talks about that crowd of protesters he was forced to walk through outside an Anaheim, Calif., conference on "the heterosexual ethic" in the spring of 1991, his voice remains even. But, his tone says, he is bewildered by all this.

"I had never been exposed to any of this kind of thing before. We got there and there were more radical, protesting homosexuals carrying some of the most bizarre signs and displaying some of the most bizarre things I'd ever seen in my life. Saying things like, 'Get your Bible out of our pants.' They had the F word a lot. They were just saying all kinds of filthy, lewd-type things.

"It just blew me away."

Afterward, the charismatic Christian minister and his wife, Jeannette, of Lancaster, Calif., began work on what they called "The Gay Agenda," a videotape assault on the gay lifestyle. It features married men who say they were cured of their homosexuality, therapists and doctors who calmly give graphic descriptions of anal intercourse and other sexual practices involving urine and feces -- practices in which they claim almost all gay men participate. And, framing it all, are images from gay pride parades in New York, West Hollywood and San Francisco: Bare breasts and decorated phalluses and men kissing men.

Beeson says more than 70,000 copies of "The Gay Agenda" have been distributed. It was seen in Oregon, which in November rejected an anti-gay rights referendum, and in Colorado, which passed one. It was sent to members of the military and Congress earlier this year. It sells for $13.95.

Beeson says he is only telling Americans the facts, and drawing obvious conclusions: "What would we do if 90 percent of citizens said they were going to use their nose rather than their mouth to drink with, that they have this orientation to use their nose and they're going to drink through straws in their noses. We say, obviously, the nose was not built for that, but they went along and did it and they developed chronic sinus problems. Would Americans be hateful, bigoted, not compassionate if they didn't cure their sinus problems? Or would they tell them, 'Keep that straw out of your nose, because the nose was not made for that!' "

Just recently, Beeson led a prayer breakfast at a California convention. The protesters were back, but this time their placards bore his name.

Beeson says he finds the protests "encouraging."

"Obviously, we're making an impact." He has plans to make more videos.

It was a mutual wooing, the gay men and lesbians looking for political clout, Bill Clinton looking for money and votes. They met in a living room in Hollywood Hills in October 1991. Twenty or so gay men and lesbians, all of them well-connected and moneyed, members of a group called Access Now for Gay and Lesbian Equality (ANGLE). Bill Clinton. Hillary Clinton. And David Mixner, the longtime political strategist and longtime Clinton friend.

"It happened really quickly," Mixner, who is gay, says now. "I would say most of the people in the meeting, when Clinton first arrived, were strongly for Paul Tsongas, and I would say to almost a person, they were for Clinton when he left.

"It wasn't just a question of someone relating a story to him and him giving a traditional political response. He would probe. Someone would say, 'I'm HIV-positive and I just got out of the hospital.' He would say, 'Well, what kind of treatment did you get and how does it affect your job and do your parents know?' There was this intense personal caring that just blew people away."

Intense personal caring? Or just savvy politics?

Although Clinton had had openly gay friends for years, he did not have much of a record on gay rights in Arkansas, one of only a few states with an anti-sodomy law that specifically applies to homosexuals; Clinton never attempted to get it repealed. But despite his record, Clinton decided the gay constituency meant something important to him, and the gay voters decided Clinton meant something to them as well. When the Gennifer Flowers story and the draft debate paralyzed the campaign, other funding slackened but the gay dollars kept coming in, Mixner says. Gay people have been stigmatized for years for their sexual activities; they were not about to turn against Clinton on that issue.

How many gay men and lesbians voted for Clinton? Mixner claims 6 to 7 million. That number is open to debate. This is not: Mixner raised $3 million for Bill Clinton.

The letters had been discovered by accident in a San Francisco Dumpster in 1974, and five years later they found their way to Allan Berube.

"As I carefully opened each envelope and read the letter inside, I found myself entering the secret world of gay soldiers who served in the Army during World War II," the gay historian wrote later. "Reading those letters 10 years ago changed my life."

Inspired by those letters, intrigued by the new-found history, Berube began work on a book that came out in 1990: "Coming Out Under Fire: The History of Gay Men and Women in World War Two."

The Dumpster letters were written by a dozen or so gay soldiers who met at a Missouri Army base. After they were transferred out, they wrote to each other about the war that would profoundly change gay life in America.

Many gay men and lesbians had found a new freedom when they enlisted and left behind their small towns and parents' homes. In their single-sex barracks, they met other people like themselves, sometimes for the first time.

Berube found some soldiers who said their straight comrades recognized and tolerated their sexual lives.

But there were periodic witch hunts. Soldiers caught having sex or those who asked for psychological help with sexual issues risked confinement in a psychiatric ward and eventual dishonorable discharge. Interrogations of suspected homosexuals were sometimes "horribly embarrassing," one letter writer said. Before one particular committee in Louisiana, "the victim is placed on a block, quite nude, in front of a table full of assorted colonels and majors, and made to answer the most intimate questions. We call it the 'slave mart.' "

Those soldiers who were given dishonorable discharges were also denied GI benefits, and in postwar America often found themselves discriminated against in the job market. They moved, as Berube puts it, from one war to another.

Those two wars -- one military, the other social -- shaped the nation's gay demography. Many men and women never returned to their home towns. San Francisco, through which thousands passed on their way to service in the Pacific and where thousands were discharged either honorably or dishonorably -- thus was born a gay homeland.

All through the first preview of his new play, Paul Rudnick was watching his mother's shoulders.

"She's a nice Jewish mom and she tends to spend the entire preview looking around to see if other people liked her kid's work or they are going to kill him." He was worried himself, last New Year's Eve in New York, that his play "Jeffrey" would be a bust. It is about a gay man who gives up even safer-sex because life has become too depressing. Perhaps it was still too early in the life of AIDS to write a romantic comedy. Perhaps the jokes about dying would horrify the audience.

But people laughed. And his mother's taut and anxious shoulders relaxed.

Five years ago an evening filled with jokes about AIDS would have been insulting. "It was one of those few times in decades when theater actually informed the nation, if not the world. 'The Normal Heart.' 'As Is.' It was really a question of just getting the nightmare known."

"There used to be a feeling you were kind of allowed one gay play every three seasons," says Rudnick, "and that was kind of your maximum."

Soon "Angels in America" will open on Broadway, Tony Kushner's Pulitzer Prize-winning play that places gay life and AIDS at the very center of the American story. The assumption is the play will sweep the Tonys.

Much of the visual art world is dominated by examinations of AIDS and homophobia, along with other political issues. Jonathan Demme's movie "Philadelphia," about a gay lawyer with AIDS, is to open this fall. Oliver Stone is producing a movie about Harvey Milk, the openly gay San Francisco supervisor who was assassinated in 1978. Barbra Streisand has an option on "The Normal Heart."

And producers are talking to Rudnick about turning his play into a movie.

But in the meantime, Rudnick is doing other things. The days are over when an artist was typecast forever by his sexual orientation. Rudnick is not a gay dramatist. He is a dramatist. Now he's writing the sequel to "The Addams Family."

The marches may be large, the legislation revolutionary, the court cases groundbreaking, but for most people history is played out over the breakfast table, in classrooms, on medical insurance forms. Do your parents welcome you and your lover for Thanksgiving? Does your partner's health insurance cover your dental work? What word do you use to describe yourself? Where do you feel comfortable living, walking, having children?

-- One young Washington woman made personal history this week. No, she told her parents, she will no longer come to family parties and holidays as long as her brother continues to announce his disgust with her. If he will not let her near his children, for fear of their corruption, she will stay away entirely.

-- It happened over time, so gradually he cannot remember the moment his internal vocabulary changed. But by some time in 1990 Andrew Mellen had stopped being gay and had become queer. He was not alone. For many politically active gay men and lesbians, the word queer has gone from epithet hurled at them to label proudly worn. "Everyone can be queer, even if you don't sleep with someone of the same sex," says Mellen, a performance artist. "It includes the disenfranchised, however you've been marginalized because of your lifestyle. It has a political aspect to it that lesbian or gay doesn't. People can be lesbian and gay and be in the closet or be Republican. I don't know many Republican queers."

-- Marianne is a gay woman in her late twenties and she heard history grinding forward over the phone line recently, when her sister and brother-in-law casually told her they were thinking of coming up to Washington for the march today. They said this as if discussing plans for a backyard barbecue -- the truth lay in the subtext, in the unstated understanding that they knew she was gay and knew the march was important to her and that, therefore, it was important to them. It was simply conversation, a chat, except it was more.