Jim Harvey, a candidate for an at-large seat on the D.C. Council, often boasts about his work as a civic leader and deputy administrator of the Whitman-Walker health clinic. In public speeches he recounts his civil rights experience.

What he doesn't mention, unless specifically asked, is that he is gay.

"It is not an issue," Harvey said recently. "People are supporting me because they think I can do the job . . . . If I ran as a gay candidate, I may as well fold up shop today."

The issue of his homosexuality has complicated an already tough challenge for Harvey, 44, a Chicago native making his first bid for political office. Reinstated in the council race this week by a D.C. Court of Appeals panel after the D.C. Board of Elections dropped him from the ballot for failing to produce enough valid petition signatures, Harvey is striving to regain momentum in a formidable field. His competitors include Mayor Marion Barry, council member Hilda H.M. Mason (Statehood-At Large) and Democratic nominee Linda W. Cropp.

Many gay blacks view Harvey's campaign as another milestone on the road to more open political activism. Yet they don't intend to press him to carry the gay rights banner, they say.

But Harvey's strategy of playing down his sexual orientation could backfire. The tactic has intensified debate among black and white gay activists in the District about the merits of running on a gay activist platform, and could cause him to lose support.

Many gay whites want Harvey to run an openly gay campaign to "make a political statement and a social statement," said Mauro Montoya, president of the Gertrude Stein Democratic Club, an influential gay group.

If he wins one of the two at-large seats up for election, Harvey would become the first openly gay member of the 13-member council.

But gay blacks, some clergy members and others contend that an openly gay platform would hurt Harvey's campaign, especially in black areas and among powerful black ministers, who often rail against homosexuality.

"If you know anything about the black community, you'll know Jim has made a very good political decision," said the Rev. Albert Gallmon, pastor of Mount Carmel Baptist Church in Northwest Washington.

"There are people who say he's not open enough and they would not vote for him because of that," said Thomas Gleaton, president of the D.C. Coalition of Black Gay Men and Women. "I haven't heard any black gay person say he should run as an openly gay candidate. The majority of black gays realize that Jim Harvey cannot run as our candidate . . . . I can understand his dilemma."

Tom Chorlton, who is white and is the Statehood Party candidate for a shadow congressional seat, ran unsuccessfully for council as a gay-rights activist in 1988. Harvey said he has no intention of following Chorlton's lead.

"That's fine if you want to be a martyr," said Harvey, who is running as an independent. "But if you want to win, you've got to be perceived as a candidate who has solid positions on issues of universal interest to everybody."

Harvey's dilemma and the debate surrounding it reflects the uneasiness with which gay blacks in Washington are confronting their individual and group identities.

Despite a national gay-rights movement inspiring throngs of whites to come out of the closet, many gay blacks remain hidden in an "invisible community," as some describe it.

At the same time, Gleaton said, some less reticent gay blacks want to establish themselves as a political power and have worked for candidates in the District's congressional and mayoral campaigns.

Estimated to number roughly 40,000, gay blacks in the District outnumber gay whites 2 to 1. Yet the white gay community is recognized as a political force while gay blacks say they lack a distinct voice and community. While some parts of Dupont Circle, Adams-Morgan and Capitol Hill have attracted large numbers of gay whites, there are no areas of the city clearly identified with gay blacks.

"Homophobia is still prevalent in the black community, and for a lot of people that's the fear," Gleaton said. "For a lot of black gay men and women it's uncomfortable to separate ourselves from the larger community, so we don't do things to rock the boat or shake up the establishment."

The AIDS epidemic, which disproportionately affects blacks, has sparked a political awakening among white and black gay people alike. Gay whites brandish their voting strength at public rallies and marches. But most blacks, Gleaton said, are "silent contributors" who "choose not to be out."

But some gay blacks are making slow, deliberate moves to become openly active. They are taking awareness campaigns to black politicians, civil rights leaders and churches.

This year, for the first time in its 10-year history, the 40-member Coalition of Black Gay Men and Women interviewed and rated mayoral candidates. The coalition mailed the ratings to 200 subscribers to its monthly newsletter before the September primary.

Last month, gay blacks from Washington and other cities met with civil rights leaders in Atlanta to discuss ways to fight AIDS and homophobia.

Harvey, meanwhile, is sticking to more traditional issues as he campaigns. He is leading a drive to lower parking fines in the city and he vows to work to strengthen council authority over District affairs.

Harvey, whose campaign has attracted broad support, said most people know he is gay. "Even though people know, the response is that it's not important enough for people to talk about," he said.

Montoya, the Stein club president, disagrees.

"I think there are quite a few people who don't know that Harvey is gay," he said. "I think he is sensitive to the extent that he doesn't want people to focus on that. But a lot of young {gay people} are struggling with this. There is pressure on him because he is a role model."

A former Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee organizer, Harvey shuns attempts by Stein club members and writers at the Washington Blade, a gay weekly newspaper, to label him a gay-rights activist.

"I am a community activist and have always been," he said.