WHEN THE DEMOCRATIC National Committee voted to accept lesbians and gay men as an official party caucus, DNC political director Ann Lewis said the significance was that there were no "fireworks" among Democrats.

Indeed, there was remarkably little attention paid to the development from any quarter. Instead it seems to have been simply the latest installment in the increasingly familiar story of growing gay political influence and acceptance.

That impression is strengthened by the treatment the gay rights issue is getting from Democratic presidential hopefuls. Sen. Alan Cranston already has become a sponsor of the Senate gay civil rights bill. Gary Hart is expected to follow suit before taking to the podium as the keynote speaker at a Los Angeles gay fund-raising dinner April 23. Former Vice President Walter Mondale served as keynoter at another gay fund-raiser last fall.

John Glenn abandoned his earlier reticence on the issue to tell New York magazine that he favors civil rights protections for gays. Even Reuben Askew, who once publicly backed Anita Bryant's campaign to deny civil rights protections to gays, now says he is rethinking the issue in terms of "social justice," although he is not yet ready to consier it a "civil rights" issue.

Republican reaction to this new Democratic willingness to court gay support is surprisingly mixed. In California, the new Republican state chairman, Ed Reinecke, followed the Democrats' lead and publicly announced his party would actively seek gay support. A first test is slated in San Diego's mayoral election Tuesday. Republican candidate Roger Hedgecock has made stronger overtures to the gay community than has Democrat and feminist Maureen O'Connor. Gay clubs have apparently raised at least $35,000 for Hedgecock.

In fact, on the state and local level there has been considerable Republican support for gay civil rights. Republican officeholders are chief sponsors of state gay rights bills in California, Illinois and Massachusetts. Gay civil rights may have appeared to become a partisan issue not only because of an alliance between the Republican Party and New Christian Right activists, but also because of political mistakes by gay activists themselves

Many gay activists have approached Republicans as though they were merely slow- witted Democrats -- repeating pleas for recognition of gay minority rights instead of arguing against government intrusions on privacy, a line that proves more effective with many Republicans. Other gay activists seem prepared to write off Republicans as morally stunted when it comes to civil rights. Meanwhile, Republicans who are themselves gay have been much slower to organize within their own ranks.

The result is a Democratic Paty that is much more sensitized to gay concerns than the GOP. In the Democratic Party near unanimity is emerging on a "threshhold" position on gay civil rights. Partly this may be due to a desire to avoid a presidential primary battle where differences on this issue could receive bruising visibility. But it is also a clear recognition that gays play an important role in electing Democrats as well as nominating them.

Not surprisingly, it isn't possible to provide precise statistics on gays' voting patterns, but after a decade of forming political clubs and working in local campaigns, a reasonable picture of gay political strength can be drawn. There are somewhere over 90 gay political organizations at the local level around the country in more than 40 states. Some, such as Houston's, are veritable political machines with more than 11,000 members. Others, such as in Washington, D.C., number well over a 1,000 with half that many available for volunteer political work. A quick survey of gay groups indicates that perhaps 250,000 people across the country have actually taken membership.

But the number of people influenced by that force is considerably larger. There are perhaps three dozen gay newspapers that devote a fair amount of space to political news. Together, an estimated 2 million copies of those papers are read every two weeks. Even that figure only takes into account the number of people living in neighborhoods where gay papers are readily available. And it doesn't begin to take into consideration the number of parents and friends of gays who support gay civil rights measures.

But apart from numbers, the locale of gay voting strength plays a role in any candidate's decision to address gay concerns. During the 1980 primaries, when gays asked Carter for a token of his commitment on the issue, the reply came back that it would have to wait until after the Iowa primary. But ironically, in the Iowa delegate selection process, several caucuses went on record supporting a strong gay rights plank, and then helped elect one delegate to the national convention who was committed to vote only for a candidate who would support gays.

The Iowa delegate ended up supporting Edward Kennedy, who was the first major candidate to understand that it was both an issue and a constituency that was ready to come out of the closet. By acknowledging the importance of gay voters, Kennedy pulled in some of his most active volunteers. They accounted for his first delegate victories in Florida, helped run the Texas and California campaigns, were credited with actually winning the New York campaign by Carter's own operatives, and even got elected as Kennedy delegates from states such as New Mexico and Wyoming.

Kennedy was, in effect, anticipating a constituency that was still invisible to other candidates. They came most heavily from the strongly gay neighborhoods in New York City, Washington, Miami, Houston, Dallas, New Orleans, Portland, Oregon, San Francisco, Los Angeles and other big cities. These match almost exactly the neighborhoods that the marketing corporation Claritas identified as "Cluster 37, or The Bohemian Mix," in their unique zip code demographic study of neighborhoods. Interestingly, the population of those neighborhoods also totals 2 million people.

In addition to helping supportive candidates win office, gays are stepping into public office on their own as well. As might be expected, gays can be found on city councils in San Francisco, Key West, Fla., and Santa Cruz, Calif. But it was somewhat more surprising when Wisconsin governor Anthony Earl was able to find two openly gay county supervisors to head his new Governor's Council on Lesbian and Gay Issues. In both Minnesota's senate and house, the chief sponsors of gay civil rights measures are openly gay. In all, it is likely that more than 100 openly gay people serve in elected or appointed public office.

This has also, in some places, produced some rather odd results. In Dallas this year, a candidate for city council turns out to have changed his name about a decade ago from "Gay" to "Gray;" his political distance from gays now is expected to be one factor in his race. In Philadelphia, former mayor Frank Rizzo has apologized for once saying his administration would "make Attila the Hun look like a faggot," and has started giving interviews to the local gay press.

One reason things have changed so much since the 1980 elections is that gays now appear able to match the strength of their volunteer efforts with financial support. Last year, the Human Rights Campaign Fund, a gay political action committee, raised more than $600,000. The powerful Municipal Elections Committee of Los Angeles (MECLA) raised more than $250,000 for candidates there. In all, gays raised as much as a million dollars for the 1982 elections.

The result was an unprecedented level of success for gay-supported candidates. All 54 House sponsors of the federal gay civil rights bill who sought reelection won. Another dozen or more candidates pledged to become cosponsors won as well. The Gay Rights National Lobby estimates umthat the House version of the bill may have as many as 85 sponsors this session, and, more important, the sponsors will include members from such places as Albuquerque, Kansas City and Gary.

The Moral Majority's effort to use gay rights as a litmus test on morality failed in race after race. Members of Congress had been threatened that they would be accused of permitting Washington to become "the gay capitol of the world" unless they voted to overturn a reform of D.C. law that decriminalized homosexual acts between consenting adults in private. Congress succumbed, voting overwhelmingly to reject that proposed D.C. reform.That vote, however, turned out not to be the plus with voters back home that the Moral Majority had promised.

Only one of the 126 members who defied the Moral Majority and supported the D.C. bill lost his election, and that was generally conceded to be a redistricting problem. Of the majority who voted Falwell's way, however, 22 went down to defeat, and six of those were replaced by opponents who now will cosponsor gay civil rights measures.

It now appears that such New Right attacks on gays are a driving force behind gay activism. "This issue is our Israel," explains National Gay Task Force director Virginia Apuzzo. He metaphor indicates not only gays' level of commitment, but also their perception that they are under attack. In 1980, as a Democratic Party activist, Apuzzo toured 13 cities to target precincts for gay volunteer efforts in support of Carter. The outcome was a 61 percent vote for Carter in those neighborhoods -- just about the only places in the country where Carter did better in 1980 than in 1976

In a 1980 survey by a Los Angeles marketing firm of readers of the Advocate, the national gay newsmagazine, 42 percent said they make annual political contributions, and 73 percent said they voted in the last election.

Fears that this activity might spur a backlash, as predicted by the Christian new right, have eased somewhat following an August, 1982, Garth Analysis which found that few voters seem influenced by a candidate's position on gay rights. According to Garth's polls, 22 percent said their vote could be influenced by a candidate's position on tuition tax credits, and 19 percent said they could be swayed by abortion. But only three percent said a candidate's stand on homosexual rights would be a factor.

Overall, the Garth Analysis found that support for gay civil rights was holding steady at the levels it has enjoyed since polling began on the issue in 1977: 55 percent in favor, 34 opposed -- not quite a 2-to-1 majority. When the question was posed in a 1979 Harris poll as to whether homosexuality is a threat to family life, a key propostion of the New Right, only 13 percent of Americans would agree.

Such support remains passive, however, unless significant political leaders willingly place the issue on their agenda.

There is little problem discerning what the gay political agenda will be over the next two years: defeating the annual antigay initiatives offered in congress by Rep. Larry McDonald (R-Ga.) and others, winning slots as delegates in the coming caucuses and primaries, following up on endorsements from American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employes (AFSCME) and other unions last summer to win support ultimately from Lane Kirkland and the full AFL-CIO.

Until now, gays have been spending their political energies primarily on the right to win inclusion in the political process, not on making government responsive to their needs once on the inside. But that will change in time. Already gays have an agenda for new government policies to help them.

The highest priority now is to make the government more responsive to the Aquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) linked to fatal illnesses predominantly striking gay men. Despite a doubling of cases every six months, and even a new policy of asking gays to voluntarily refrain from giving blood to blood banks, the National Institutes for Health reports um that research grants on the illness are being processed at the "normal" rate. The Center for Disease Control has not increased its $2 million annual budget despite growing signs of a genuine emergency.

Beyond such crisis situations, the major demand gays will make of government will be for action to end discrimination in government employment, programs and services, including the military. How such policies can be implemented, however, is an uncharted area. Unless gays begin to focus on governmental processes, their political successes will mean no more than Ronald Reagan's 1980 campaign commitment to oppose discrimination against gays has come to mean.

Reagan, of course, provides the contrast with Democrats on this issue. But not for the reasons most would anticipate. Reagan's own record clearly shows he does not sanction discrimination against gays. His outspokenness on the topic exceeded nearly every Democratic leader before 1980.

In 1978, it was Ronald Reagan who tipped the scales against a New Right initiative to drive gays from the California school system, speaking out strongly than any national Democratic would. In 1980, when he then turned to court that same New Right constituency, he stood by his earlier nondiscrimination position, and issued a campaign statement opposing discrimination against gays in strong terms.

In office, however, he has permitted appointees to actually add to the discrimination written into government regulations, and to threaten private sector groups such as law schools with withdrawal of federal funds if they refuse to allow the government to discriminate in employment recruitment on their premises.

The lessons are fairly clear: promises with low priority mean business as usual, permitting discrimination to flourish wherever it can find an advocate. In Reagan's case, the signal also is not that he is uneasy with gays, but that he is uneasy with the remedies government offers for dealing with discrimination. In that sense, gay civil rights has become a litmus test not of morality, but of government's role in insuring civil rights protections for all Americans. The growing awareness of that connection has meant that groups who are supportive of gay civil rights merely as a sign of tolerance now fight for them because of concern about their own rights.

Until gay activists can move beyond mere political acceptability to affect the way government actually deals with people's lives, we won't know how far the gay rights movement can go. What we are witnessing now could be the highwater mark for this group; and perhaps gays are becoming a permanent force in American politics.