There was a time a few short years back when gay activists in Washington looked at municipal elections with the oblique political perception of radical social reformers. Elections were a good chance to propagandize for the movement, but don't ever be misled into believing you're going to win, so the theory went.

Those days have quickly passed in this city, where one of the nation's strongest gay rights laws is firmly on the books (even though, gay leaders claim, it is only mildly enforced); where the City Council proclaims Gay Pride Week instead of Gay Pride Day; and where elected city officials - including leading mayoral hopefuls - court the gay vote with gusto.

Indeed, political operatives in Washington's gay community (which is estimated by its leaders to number more than 70,000 persons) are taking on all the trappings of an established and well-organized special interest group, in much the same way as labor or business.

The hub of gay politcal involvement in Washington is the Gertrude Stein Democratic Club, founded last year with the express purpose of wielding power and influence in the Democratic Party, which is the party of three of every four registered voters in the city.

The nonpartisan Gay Activists Alliance takes the advocacy role on broader gay causes. But it is the club, according to chairman Richard Maulsby, which is interested primarily in the hard facts of political power and influence as they relate to the gay community.

In some respects, this city's political activists have stopped fighting the system and joined it. In what appears to be a well-thought out political game plan, gays are getting involved in every aspect of the fledgling politics of a city recently returned to limited home rule.

This year, Maulsby says, gay candidates will run in elections for the city's 36 Advisory Neighborhood Commissions, Washington's Neighborhood Commissions, Washington's official neighborhood-based citizens' councils. The club also plans to hold receptions for ANC members in the near future.

At the City Council level, there are no current plans to run a gay candidate, Maulsby says. "We could do it in ward two if John Wilson (a strong gay rights supporter) weren't the incumbent and, depending on how many candidates were in the race. I think we'd do pretty well," Maulsby said. (One of the larger concentrations of gays is in ward two).

Short of that, the gays plan to exert influence on the City Council the same way others do. They've already raised $5,000 to give to candidates in next year's elections. More importantly, the past two city elections have shown that the gay community can turn out another precious political commodity - campaign workers.

Five dozen persons recruited by gay activists turned out to help Wilson and Marion Barry (D-at large) during last year's City Council general election and during the July 19 special City Council election this year. Maulsby boasts. "We had more people than Hilda Mason needed." Mason won.

Good betting money is on Barry as the gay's favorite 1978 mayoral hopeful, though Council Chairman Sterling Tucker, who has not been as vocal in his support to gays as Barry, is given an outside chance of gaining gay support. Gay leaders have written off supporting Mayor Walter E. Washington, should he seek re-election, Maulsby said.

"The mayor just doesn't see it (gay rights.) He has trouble focusing on it as an issue. It's something he just can't imagine having to confront as a politician," says Maulsby.

The Gertrude Stein club also plans to take part in area Congressional elections, hoping to help send to office candidates who would support extension of the federal civil rights laws to homosexuals. It is also establishing ties with the Democratic State Committee and the city's Young Democrats.

What more could the gays ask of city government?

Well, says Maulsby, some gay business establishments are still periodically harassed by police, a special public veneral disease clinic once envisioned for male homosexuals has never been set up by the city, and then there's always the nened for better enforcement of the city's human rights law.

"I just would like to see the city run better. I think we could have a more efficient administration," Maulsby says. "It's just not the concerns of the gay community. It's the concerns of the whole community. We live in this city, too."