"I can only come close to explaining it," said the man, as he nursed a midday beer. "There's a tradition for it, and now we have our own places. But it's more a question of a feeling. We're here because we feel comfortable here."

Some would not grant that this man was a man. He wore a gold earring, and his hair was peroxided past the color of straw.Throughout a 10-minute discussion, he held his lover's hand. The lover was a man, too.

The setting and the subject were Dupont Circle. With little dispute, this area of small shops and old brick townhouses around the intersection Connesticut and Massachusetts Avenues NW has become the city's mecca for gays of both sexes; at least as a place to live.

For the third straight year, Washington area gays held a Gay Pride Day block party in the Dupont Circle area last Sunday. Both gays and straights say the location was not chosen by accident. Dupont Circle, they say, is without the tensions or smirks or resentments sometimes found in such other gay enclaves as Capitol Hill and South west.

Gay Dupont Circlers say that is true because they have proven to potentially negative "straight" businesses and landlords that, with one paramount exception, they are just like everyone else.

"We pay our rent, we don't paint the walls purple, we curb our dogs. Hell, we're model citizens," said Arthur Little, a gay who lives on 19th Street NW.

Straights say they get along with neighborhood gays because the gays tend to be employed, tend to be stable, tend to spend money in the neighborhood and tend to provide street safety in a curious sort of way.

"I never feel afraid any more when I walk around here," said Evelyn Personick, 64, who lives on Q Street NW. "The gays are always walking around, and they're scared away all the muggers."

Tolerance between gays and straights was documented earlier this month when gays passed a petition around the 1700 block of 20th Street NW. They were planning the city's third annual Gay Pride Day, all of which have been held near Dupont Circle. Before the police would agree to seal off the 20th Street block for this year's party, the gays had to get written approval from at least 51 per cent of the people living or doing business there.

They got much more. Only one man objected. "More than I expected," said Richard McGinnis, manager of the gay Lambda Rising bookstore around the corner.

Last Sunday, at the party itself, attended by more then 2,000 gays, all but three of 30 celebrants interviewed said they lived within eight blocks of the party site. The three who didn't said they would if they could find a place or afford the rents.

Yet to walk around Dupont Circle, day or noght, is to see plenty of men and women holding hands, and other surefire heterosexual indicators.

At a long-established redneck bar on Connecticut Avenue, for example, the trade is male and the talk tends to fantasies about Farrah Fawcett-Majors.

A neighborhood bookshop displays a heterosexual sex manual in its window. A local record store salutes Frank Sinatra in its window - not Bette Midler.

Still, a gay cause can quickly become a neighborhood cause. Soon after Anita Bryant's recent victory in a Miami homosexual rights referendum, most of the restaurants around Dupont Circle agreed - some without prodding - to stop serving the Florida orange juice Bryant advertises.

Gays have places they frequent around Dupont Circle, such as the Paramount Steak House on 17th Street and Mr. P's and the Fraternity House, both bars near 22nd and P Streets. Gays have also established "The Black Forest," a grove of trees near P Street in Rock Creek Psrk where a gay can meet another.

But gays are also good customers of businesses that serve everyone.

Edward Haynes, proprietor of a laundromat at 1722 Connecticut Ave., said his many gay customers "are no different at all and in some respects they're more considerate." There have been "no incidents" between straights and gays in his shop, nor attempts by one gay 'to pick up another, Haynes said. "I get more of that with men and women, much more," Haynes said.

Doug Wright, 29, a gay and a Dupont Circle resident, said the area appeals to him and other gays because it is a "mixing bowl" of many nationalities and both races.

"Blacks are more accepting of gays than most white middle-class people," said Wright, a public relations man for the Department of Health, Education and Welfare. "I ofter get a sense from straight people generally of being patronized, but there's probably less of that here than any place i-ve ever been."

Wright said one recent trend among Dupont Circle gays is to be roommates, but not necessarily lovers. "It really is easier to cook for two than for one," he said, just as it would be, and is, for heterosexual roommates of the saime sex.

"I have my share of neuroses like everybody else," Wright said, "but around here, many gays are just ordinary, normal, productive people."

As Sandy Buttinelli, proprietor of Agostino's Restaurant, put it: "I'm very happy with the live-and-let-live atmosphere around here - as long as you don't beat me over the head with it. And the gays don't."