Robert E. Bauman had spoken at Washington College before, in what he called his "former incarnation" as the Eastern Shore's congressman, a confident crusader for the New Right. His appearances before the campus Young Republicans then drew crowds of 20 or 30, give or take a few.

When Bauman spoke here Tuesday night on the topic "Conservative and Gay," more than 200 people packed the college's Hynson Lounge.

Once a man who seemed to live in three-piece suits, Bauman swept into the steamy lounge dressed in white pants and Topsiders, pink shirt, lavender tie and a blue blazer with the crest of his alma mater, Georgetown, on the breast pocket.

"You're brave to invite me," he told the audience, which was made up largely of students and staff at this 1,000-student liberal arts college.

"I've gotten a lot of letters lately, many of them quoting scripture, telling me, among other things, that I shouldn't be speaking to students. Well, I won't tell your parents you were here."

Bauman looked different from his last campaign appearance here a year ago--in addition to his new wardrobe, he has lost weight--but he sounded almost the same. The words were still brisk, the quotes from famous authors and politicians frequent, the references to "old friends" in Congress constant.

But the subject was no longer Nicaragua or the Reagan budget. To those who had followed his 1982 campaign for Congress, Bauman saying "we gays" sounded decidedly discordant.

Student Jonathan McKnight said Bauman's pairing of homosexuality and conservatism was "like someone belonging to the NAACP and the KKK at the same time."

Bauman, who announced his homosexuality during a speech before the American Bar Association last month, said he believes he can be important to the gay movement because most of its leaders are liberals.

"I think there are probably more gays who are conservative than who are liberal," he said. "But you don't see them marching down the street dressed as nuns. More likely, they are two guys running an antique shop in Kenosha, Wis., who nobody bothers because they sell nice antiques. They live life in the closet because our society forces them to do so."

He said he is speaking out on homosexual rights because he believes he can help the movement and because, at this point, he has no reason to remain in the closet.

"I think when we get to the point where more people can admit they are gay we will all be better off," he said. "I think that goes for everybody, in any job at any level. After all, once someone says he's gay, he can't be blackmailed."

Elected to Congress from Maryland's First District in 1973, Bauman lost his seemingly safe seat in 1980, a month after he announced that he suffered from the "twin compulsions of alcoholism and homosexuality."

In plea-bargaining with D. C. prosecutors, he was allowed to plead not guilty to a charge of soliciting sex from a 16-year-old boy, in exchange for agreeing to enter a court-sponsored rehabilitation program.

He has sold his house in Easton, for $240,000, and while he hasn't decided where he will live, he likes California. "In San Francisco or Los Angeles, I would be just another person," he said.

But here on the Eastern Shore, he is anything but that. Questions thrown at him after the speech--almost the same as the one he gave to the ABA, asking for laws to protect homosexuals from discrimination--were aggressive.

"When you were in Congress, before you realized you were gay, you were against gay rights, you spoke out against homosexuality all the time," one student said. "Now that you are gay, now you are telling us that being gay is all right?"

"There is no question that there is selfishness involved here," Bauman answered. "I think I'm like a lot of other gays who grew up hating themselves. You know, we all hear the locker room jokes, things like that.

"Look, I was wrong, but that doesn't mean I should be forever wrong. Give me a chance."

Bauman was asked how he could reconcile his homosexuality with his religious faith. "The church's position on homosexuality is that it is not a sin to be a homosexual," Bauman said. "It is, however, a sin to act on that homosexuality. I cannot believe, though, that the Good Lord would put 10 percent of us on the earth with proclivities that cannot be expressed between two human beings."

Bauman was received politely by the audience, applauded at the end and then surrounded by reporters. One person who seemed to have a difficult time dealing with the "new" Bauman was Larry Kaltman, a junior, member of the Young Republicans and a Bauman supporter in the past. Kaltman, who accompanied Bauman to dinner before the speech along with two professors, the president of the college and Bauman's traveling companion, said he felt strange being with Bauman again.

"Look at him, he's entirely different," Kaltman said. "He has that kid traveling with him who can't be older than I am. I just can't adjust to this. I think a lot of people feel the same way."

In 1980, Bauman blamed alcohol for his homosexual tendencies. Early in 1982 he said he believed homosexuality "is immoral. It is a sin." In 1982, he said he believed he had always had homosexual tendencies. Now, dropping his voice to a whisper, Bauman says, "I'm finally out of the closet."