William Nicol's obituary gave no clue to the cause of his death. It just highlighted his public life: analyst for the Coast Guard, host of a radio opera show, holder of a masters degree in musicology and conducting from Brooklyn College, tenor soloist at the Ascencion & St. Agnes Church on Capitol Hill and member of the Washington Camarota, which sings medieval and baroque songs.

Few knew about his private life. Nicol, 36, was gay.

He was shot to death in his Capitol Hill apartment after bringing a stranger home. Last week, an 18-year-old Virginia man who was arrested at a mental hospital was indicted in the slaying.

An investigation into the 33 killings of gays that have occurred in Washington in the past two years has turned up more than 70 suspects. Police said they believe most are nonhomosexual young black men from Southeast Washington who make forays into downtown, await "pickups" by gay men and then rob or kill them.

But few arrests have been made.

While the deadly disease AIDS (acquired immune deficiency syndrome) has captured headlines--and the lives of 300 gay men--nationally, the continuing violent attacks on gays receive less public attention because of a dark cloak of homo phobia that keeps their personal lives secret.

Despite their growing political clout as a group, especially in Washington, many gays have been unable to declare their sexual preferences openly in their private lives. Consequently, when they encounter foul play, it is usually with strangers met in offbeat nightspots.

And police are often left with no leads.

"Unfortunately, there is a breed of people in this city who believe that if you are gay, you are weak and they are going to prey on you," said Sgt. Elijah M. Wade, a D.C. police homicide detective.

"Although we have an excellent rapport with the gay community here, some guys are still reluctant to report a crime," Wade said. "We have a man in the hospital right now who has been shot six times and he still won't say what happened."

The New York Anti-Gay Violence Crisis Line reports crimes against gays are pervasive in all states. And gays are stigmatized the same as rape victims were 20 years ago. Only about one in five gay victims reports the crime to police, according to Aubrey Wertheim, crisis line coordinator for the National Gay Task Force.

"When people think of violence against gays, it's mostly bar bashings," Wertheim said. "More common is violence on school grounds and domestic violence. We have a case where a 19-year-old tried to come out of the closet and his father held him down while his mother beat him brutally, then kicked him out of the house. The policeman who arrived on the scene told the parents he would have done the same thing if he found out his son was 'queer.' "

In Washington, a $1,000 reward has been offered by a group of gays for information leading to the arrests of suspects in the string of gay-related killings.

Most of the deaths came after pickups made around New York Avenue and 12th Street NW. The Brass Rail, a predominately black gay club, and The Naples Club, a predominately white one, are both near the intersection.

"On a personal level, this makes one very wary," said Gilberto Gerald, president of the D.C. Coalition of Black Gays. "I knew several of the people who have been killed. The concern over AIDS would have you believe that all of us are living in the fast lane, but as a community, we just don't do that.

"But there is a point in our lives that we all go through where we tend to be less cautious, and for those at that point now, there is a real danger. There is not enough education about that point even in the gay community."

Meanwhile, D.C. police are asking that gay men show particular caution when picking up strangers around 12th Street and New York Avenue. Jeff Levi, a spokesman for the city's Gay Activist Alliance, says it will keep trying to break down society's homo phobia, which people like Nicol are paying for with their lives.