After several years of relative quiet on the political front, Washington's gay community is mobilizing to retake its traditionally influential role in city elections.

But the gay community appears to be far more divided politically than in previous elections as many gay activists have shifted their allegiances after years of support for Mayor Marion Barry.

More than 300 activists and most leading D.C. politicians turned up this month at the banquet of the Gertrude Stein Democratic Club, twice the number that appeared at last year's annual showcase for the city's leading gay political organization.

Earlier this year, the D.C. Gay and Lesbian Activists Alliance, seeking to raise its profile, released a comprehensive agenda for the 1990s, outlining model positions for local candidates on AIDS, gay rights and other issues of concern to the gay community.

"Gay support in 1990 will be critical," said D.C. Council member Charlene Drew Jarvis (D-Ward 4), a mayoral candidate who has made inroads with the gay community. "It is an organized constituency -- a very goal-oriented constituency with very clear ideas about how government should work."

D.C. gay activists reached their zenith in the early 1980s, after helping Barry win his first Democratic mayoral primary in a tight race in 1978. Barry rewarded them by appointing gay people -- many from the Stein Club -- to city commissions, funneling money to the Whitman-Walker Clinic and taking a strong stand in defense of gay rights.

In recent years, many in the gay community have rechanneled their efforts to other causes, primarily AIDS, at the expense of gay political groups such as the Stein Club and the now-defunct Hughes-Roosevelt Democratic Club, gay activists say.

Political clubs were once among the few civic or social organizations specifically for gay men and lesbians in the Washington area. Now however, the political clubs must compete with dozens of local groups -- from neighborhood brunch groups to bowling leagues to anti-defamation groups -- for the time and attention of gay people.

"The political organizations are no longer the mechanism for rallying in the gay community," said Jim Zais, a Barry administration community organizer and veteran of local gay politics. "AIDS is more important, as are the service organizations."

Stein Club membership has declined by half in the past four years, from 240 to 120. Also, gay activist Tom Chorlton failed in his effort to capitalize on gay support in his bid for an at-large council seat in 1988, winning less than 10 percent of the vote.

Some gay activists privately question whether the Stein Club can recapture its past influence. The decline in the club's membership and influence reflects to some degree waning gay support for Barry, the first D.C. politician to actively seek the gay vote.

In 1986, sizable numbers of gay voters defected to Republican mayoral candidate Carol Schwartz despite Barry's endorsement by the Stein Club. The decline continued in the wake of Barry's arrest in January on drug charges, as gay activists have turned to others -- particularly Jarvis and D.C. Council Chairman David A. Clarke (D).

Mauro Montoya, president of the Stein Club, said the mayor's declining popularity has contributed to the organization's recruitment problems.

"It makes it very hard to attract people," Montoya said, adding that he has received letters from people saying they won't join the club "as long as Stein is associated with the mayor."

Montoya said that the Stein Club is attempting to rebuild and plans to make a mayoral endorsement within the next several weeks.

Richard Maulsby, director of the city's Office of Cable Television and one of the most senior gay officials in the Barry administration, said, "The mayor has suffered in the community for the same reasons he has suffered in other places.

"It is going to be very difficult for {the} Gertrude Stein {Club} and the community to unite behind one candidate this year," Maulsby said. "It is a much different situation than in 1978."

At the same time, the community's extensive volunteer network has channeled its energies into nonpolitical pursuits. The Whitman-Walker Clinic, only a few years ago a small health facility for gay patients, has grown into a $1 million-a-year organization with a variety of AIDS programs and hundreds of volunteers.

Jarvis has scored points with the gay community by getting $250,000 added to the District's budget for a special insurance program for people with AIDS. Clarke enhanced his standing with gay people by leading a successful legal challenge of congressional action that would have limited the scope of the city's gay-rights law.

Council member John Ray (D-At Large) also appeared to be making inroads with the gay community, with the help of former Stein Club President William Bogan. However, Ray may have hurt his cause recently when he appeared before a group of gay activists and advocated heterosexuality for the black community.

A wild card in the battle for gay support is Del. Walter E. Fauntroy (D-D.C.). Gay people were angered in 1983 when they initially were denied the opportunity to address a rally commemorating the 1963 civil rights March on Washington. Fauntroy, one of the organizers of the rally, relented after a sit-in at his office by gay activists, but he was quoted at the time as comparing gay rights to "penguins' rights," according to the Washington Blade, a gay newspaper.

Fauntroy denied through a spokesman that he made any "disparaging comments" about gay people, and he expressed his opposition to "all forms of discrimination against citizens on a basis of sexual orientation."

He also met recently with a group of gay blacks to discuss their role in Fauntroy's campaign.

"He will get significant support from our community," said Philip E. Pannell, who helped organize the meeting. "He's not been any type of barn burner, but he's been good."

There are no precise figures on the number of gay men and lesbians living in Washington, although gay activists say there may be as many as 60,000. The District's white gay community over the years has had a reputation as one of the city's most cohesive and powerful voting blocs.

During the 1960s, a few gay activists here talked politics behind closed doors. Fearful of being "found out" in the intense homophobic atmosphere of the time, they sometimes used false names.

In 1978, Douglas E. Moore sought to capitalize on anti-gay sentiment in his campaign for D.C. Council chairman, declaring war on the city's "fascist faggots." Moore was defeated after gay activists, most of them white, rallied in support of his opponent.

Gay blacks have generally not been as visible, nor have they been well represented in the main gay political organizations. Their most prominent advocate, Melvin Boozer, whose name was placed in nomination for vice president at the 1980 Democratic Convention, died of AIDS in 1987.

Unlike gay whites, who often come to Washington from elsewhere, many gay blacks grew up here and find it more difficult to be out in the open, according to some black gay activists.

That may be changing, though. Several black gay activists say they intend to raise concerns with political candidates this year about the need to redirect resources in the fight against AIDS to groups working in the black community, and address other issues of concern to the black community.

"We're going to take a more visible role in the process this year," said Thomas Gleaton, president of the D.C. Coalition of Black Gay Men and Women.

Gay political strategists also are hopeful that the time is right for the election of the first openly gay person to the D.C. Council.

Jim Harvey, deputy administrator of the Whitman-Walker Clinic, is expected to pose a strong challenge to incumbent Hilda H.M. Mason (Statehood) for her at-large council seat.

If Harvey is unsuccessful, Zais is expected to run for the council seat most political observers believe will be vacant in Ward 2 this year, if Democrat John A. Wilson is successful in his race for council chairman.