Thousands of men and women marched, danced and sang through the streets of Washington yesterday afternoon in a colorful and jubilant celebration of gay pride that organizers said drew the largest crowd in its 15-year history.

A widely diverse group of religious organizations, parents and grandparents of gay people, minorities, teenagers, college students and political candidates participated in the Gay and Lesbian Pride Day parade that began at noon at Malcolm X Park and weaved down 17th Street NW through Dupont Circle.

Under a brilliant sun, the parade of brightly colored floats, four marching bands, baton twirlers, flag-wavers and antique cars spilled into the Francis Junior High School playground at 23rd and N streets NW, where the celebration was transformed into a party with live music, balloons and nearly 200 booths hawking food, jewelry and gay literature.

"We are not trying to make a statement to the heterosexual community," said Vernon L. Strickland III, a Washington lawyer and the festival organizer. "The purpose of this day is {to} give sexual minorities the opportunity to get together and celebrate their sense of community and feeling of self-worth."

And that was the overwhelming emotion expressed by parade participants.

"I'm here because I'm a gay man and I'm very proud of it," said Juan Vegega, 35, a business analyst. "I feel I have nothing to be ashamed of."

Gwynn, a landscaper who was with the Biker Dykes, said she was proud to be lesbian but didn't want to give her last name because it might hurt her father's career. She said she would feel gratified if one person's attitude toward gay people was changed by Gay Pride Day.

"This is the one time of year you can get so many gay people out at one time," she said. "It's like a power that recharges you for the rest of the year because of all the flak you get with people putting you down."

As the parade of an estimated 2,400 people moved down 17th Street, hundreds of onlookers lined the sidewalks and residents leaned out windows to cheer and applaud. Many groups had their own cheers: "Dykes and fags are here to stay. We have gay pride every day"; "We're loud, we're rude, we're proud, we're queer."

Police said about 15,000 people were on hand for the festival. Most echoed Amy Spiegel, who described the parade as "wonderful" and said she came to give her support. But Tanya Patton, who had just stepped out of the Safeway near 17th and Corcoran streets NW, said she was a little taken aback.

"I am shocked," said Patton, who stood with her two plastic grocery bags, staring in disbelief. "This is wild."

In front of Patton was Miss Gay America. The drag queen, makeup melting in the heat and wearing a streaming red, white and blue feather headdress, silver tiara, rhinestone necklace and a silver-sequined gown, pranced from one side of the road to the other with partner George Michael, who was danc-ing the popular nightclub dance the Lambada. Behind them was a man in drag dressed like Barbara Bush with uncomfortable-looking high heels and a string of pearls.

Close behind were female motorcyclists in black leather jackets with handcuffs hanging from their jeans.

On the sidewalk at 17th and P streets NW stood Barbara Archey, who brought her 3-year-old son, Clifford, to watch. "We want our children to understand and love all kinds of people," she said.

That was the hope of Beverly Davis with Parents-Flag, who said she was marching for "the human rights" of her two gay sons. "They are decent human beings," said Davis, of Silver Spring, one of many participants from the growing suburban gay-rights activist community. "They didn't choose this. Life is so hard for them."

Gay and Lesbian Pride Day started in Washington in the mid-1970s as a block party by the owner of Lambda Rising, a gay bookstore, according to Paul Hicks, the chairman of Pride of Washington. The goal, he said, was to establish unity in the gay community.

For many, it was a day for drinking beer and ice-cold lemonade and seeing friends. For others, such as Mireille Key, it was a day to mourn friends and relatives who have died from AIDS complications. At a booth near the main stage, Key and others were displaying new panels that will be added to the AIDS memorial quilt.

"I worked hard to finish this for today," said Key, whose panel was in memory of her husband, Robert. "He was a wonderful husband, friend and father."

Several politicians rode in the parade and set up booths at the festival, but none was allowed to speak, organizer Strickland said.

"This is not a political rally," Strickland said. "This is our day."