Six years ago, in the frantic opening months of the District of Columbia's first campaign for nonvoting delegate to the House of Representatives, a startling memorandum began to circulate among the small group of politically active homosexuals here.

This was an extraordinary election, the memo said, commanding the attention of newspapers, radio, and television. It offered free air time, a chance to speak publicly to very wide audiences. What the campaign needed, the memo concluded, was an openly homosexual candidate.

"It was inconceivable," recalled Paul Kunstler, a gay Democratic activist, who read the memo and realized it would take thousands of signatures just to get a candidate on the ballot. A gay electorate? "I thought, gay people are so closeted. They're not going to sign."

Kunstler is still learning how wrong he was. Not only did gays sign, in numbers (8,000) more than sufficient to insure the nomination, but they began a political phenomenon that culminated last week in the unlikely spectacle of city councilwoman Nadine Winter easing through a homosexual right rally at the Pier Nine disco, past the tight bluejeans and the "Anita Bryant Sucks Oranges" T-Shirts, to climb onto stage and made a speech supporting gays.

"I think it's time for all of us to stand up and be counted, so I'm here," Winter said. Her voice was a little tremulous. She looked alarmed when they whistled wildly and stamped the floor, but she finished her speech with a smile: "I look at everyone as a human being, and I look at you with dignity and respect, and I want to thank you."

It was an unsolicited tribute. Winter had not been asked to speak that night. Down on the stage floor, an astonished lesbian activist elbowed a male gay friend and said, "What's she doing here?"

Her friend beamed. "I guessed she and a sister, Mrs. William R. McAlpine, of Pompano Beach, Fla.

So there is a gay constituency after all, and its emergence as a small but potent power in D.C. politics that has surpassed the expectations of even the most hopeful early activists. "We've won in Washington," Kunstler reflected last week, as he stretched out in the sun behind his Southwest home. "There really isn't that much more to do."

In the movement, as homosexuals now speak of the gay activist world, it is said that three cities in America really matter these days. There is frenzied New York, where a street battle against police spawned the Gay Liberation Front eight years ago. There is flamboyant San Francisco, where Halloween is a drag queens' festival and the police play the gays in an annual softball game.

And there is Washington. More decorous than San Francisco, more languid than New York. Washington has gathered over the last 10 years a gay community so firmly rooted that you could speak a comfortable sort of Sunday in Washington without ever encountering heterosexuals.

You could read the gay newspaper and shop in a mostly gay supermarket and stop for lunch in a gay steak house. You could hang around the gay bookstores and worship at a gay church service and sit through a gay political meeting. And in the evening, of course, there are always the bars.

"Utopia," exulted one homosexual, who has been around long enough to remember very different times. "There's no other city," observed another, "that has seen such a dramatic transformation."

Washington was the first city in America to bar discrimination against homosexuals in the hiring of school teachers. Its laws include what is believed to be the most comprehensive antidiscrimination statute in the country, covering the handicapped, the divorced, the aged - and homosexuals. It is a city where some politicians and gay activists maintain a careful and openly friendly truce, where straight ward candidates actively court the support of a gay Democratic club, where the city government's affirmative action program is supposed to encourage the recruitment of gays.

There are gay church services in Washington for Protestants, Catholics, and Jews. There is a gay V.D. clinic, a gay radio program, a gay newspaper now in its eighth year, a gay switchboard and crisis counseling service, and a gay speakers' bureau whose phone recording tells the caller, firmly, "Gay is good!"

The world is still a hostile place for most homosexuals, and even here that hostility abounds: faggot jokes, muffled snickers, epithets hurled from passing cars. This is, after all, a society that disapproves of homosexuality. What has evolved in this city is a sub-culture strong enough to mute that disapproval, so that without any real geographical boundaries - Dupont Circle, Capitol Hill, Georgetown, and Southwest have all attracted sizeable homosexual populations - a kind of citywide gay neighborhood has grown up in Washington, with all that implies.

It has traditions now, like Gay Pride Day, which will mark its third year this June 12 with a block party on 17th and S Streets NW.

It has problems like a neighborhood, too. The women and men do not work well together, and organizations are male-dominated. Whites prevail in political work and many of the social functions. The radical lesbian separatists fight with lesbian moderates, the gay Socialists make fun of the gay liberal Democrats, and the denim-and-leather crowd never speaks to anybody.

Those are squabbles Paul Kunstler never dreamed of back in 1971 when he became intrigued by the idea of running a gay candidate for delegate.

The candidate was to be Franklin Kameny, already viewed by many homosexuals as a kind of gay patriarch in Washington. A former government astronomer, Kameny had been fired in 1957 when personnel investigators learned he was a homosexual. He had fought the firing ever since, first privately and then out in the open, making him one of the first publicly declared homosexuals in the city.

Laden with petitions identifying Kameny as an antiwar activist, a supporter of home rule, and a homosexual, gays fanned out over Washington to begin the campaign. They worked the bars, the restaurants, private parties. They plunged into shopping centers, braced for hostility, and found to their surprise that the most frequent reaction was, "Oh yes, he's that homosexual" - followed by a signature.

Kameny lost the election, running in fourth place behind the late Julius Hobson Sr. and ahead the Rev. Douglas Moore who was later elected to the City Council Kameny received 1,841 votes - only 1.6 per cent of the 112,675 votes cast. The campaign however, had attracted a new kind of attention to Washington's homosexuals. The following year, as the D.C. Democratic Reform Committee was compiling its slate for the 1972 Democratic Central Committee, the politicans approached Kunstler: could he help them win over the city's gays?

He could indeed. Kameny was elected an alternate delegate to the slate, and a call for gay civil rights was written into the platform. The slate was defeated, but the momentum pick up, and by the end of 1972 it had a new direction that would ultimately help rewrite District law. The project was Title 34 - the human rights law.

Up in a room of the Muncie Building overlooking E Street, A. Franklin Anderson, deputy director of the Office of Human Rights, had spent the autumn months of 1972 trying to streamline the office's convoluted rules and procedures. The office had received a federal grant for the streamlining, and as Anderson examined the various existing laws prohibiting discrimination against women and minorities, he learned that a few cities (East Lansing, Mich., for one) had included homosexuals as well.

"We were senitive to the fact that this was an incipient protected class," Anderson said recently. The word went out - a gay civil rights law was in the making Gays called friends and the friends called other gays. They compiled statistics and legal advice, and in the next few months conducted what one City Council staff member called "a hell of a job of lobbying."

"They just flooded the City Council with material," said Lynn Scholz, who works on the budget committee. As the law was drafted in preliminary form and then submitted to the City Council, Scholz and the council members sat through animated discussions quite without precedent in the District building. How should the law define homosexuality? What about child molesters? Should the law allow exemptions for businesses that claimed gays would offend customers? What about men who showed up for work in dresses and pantyhose?

Title 34, the most comprehensive human rights law in the country, passed unanimously. The pressure from the gay community did not let up: when Mayor Walter Washington announced he was considering appointments to the new 15 member Human Rights Commission, which would hear cases brought under the new law, gay activists handed him six names of homosexuals who wanted to serve.

Washington appointed Franklin Kameny. It was in part a symbolic gesture, but as Gay Activists Alliance vice president Craig Howell put it, "Just having him there, and having that title, I think, has been a tremendous lift for the whole gay community." It proved that outspoken organization could accomplish something, and by 1974, when home rule had brought the city's first council election, gays were checking off each candidate for the issues they cared about.

Questionaires went out.Do you favor repeal of sodomy laws? Should the city fund gay community services? Will you step up enforecement of Title 34?

Marion Barry, (D.-at large) who was elected to office, answered yes to the questions. So did John Wilson, (D. Ward 2) and Polly Shackleton (D. Ward 3). To be sure, there were successful candidates who answered negatively or did not return the questionnaires - Douglas Moore was one of them - but the message of the newly vocal constituency had clearly been heard, particularly in Ward 2, where the homosexuals living in Dupont Circle, Foggy Bottom, and Southwest make up a sizable portion of the electorate.

"I don't think anybody realized that they were that powerful an electorate, that there were that many of them," reflected Bridget Quinn, who has served as Wilson's aide since he was elected to office.Wilson's staff is not sure about the exact number of gays in Ward 2, "but it's a lot" Quinn said. "It's a hell of a lot."

They are only one constituency vying with many others, and not always to their advantage. When Council member Arrington Dixon referred in his 1975 no fault divorce bill to "marriage between two persons," gays seized the phrase as a legalization of gay marriages - and Dixon's voters, many of them representing church groups, were outraged.

"Wow, the heat," recalled an aide. Dixon said he had hoped the language would someday allow gay marriage if the courts and community interpreted it that way, but that after the barrage of protest ("some of it rather, uh, fundamental in its presentation," Dixon said delicately) he rewrote the bill. It now refers only to marriage between male and female persons.

Gays esimate their numbers at perhaps 50,000 city wide, working on the generally accepted assumption that homosexuals make up 10 per cent of the adult population (total D.C. population in 1975 was 711,500). They will never overwhelm electoral politics. However, the activists who thought six years ago that no homosexual would sign a gay-oriented petition have settled by now into the comfortable trappings of more traditional politics: the Gertrude Stein Democratic Club, which meets monthly to discuss impending elections; and a professional looking voters' guide, which rates candidates on the basis of past records and questionnaire answers.

Marion Barry said it as well as anybody. The at-large Council member, whom gays have for years identified as a strong supporter, joined the May 12 Pier Nine rally just long enough to say, "I just wanted to show my support for what's happening." And why was that support building at such a pace. Barry asked? "It's because you all are organized, number one, and two - you vote."