Behind the rhetoric, the high-sounding statements on human rights and the media hype in this city's gay rights controversy there is a real gut-level fear.

Kathleen Miller, a gray-haired grandmother and born-again Christian, has it. So does Joe Saletel a 30-year-old gay florist.

Miller feels the world slowly sinking into moral decay around her. Her her religion is her anchor. It gives her a self-assured righteousness, a feeling of mission.

Because of it, and "because I believe in God's word, " she has spent two days each week since February working to repeal Dade County's gay rights ordinance. "If the election goes the way of the homosexuals, this world won't be a fit place to live in," she declared solemnly. "For me, it's a holy war. God never made man to live in sin."

Life in Miami has been good to Joe Saletel. A former Cleveland school teacher, who lived a double life back in Ohio, he's been out of the closet ever since he moved here five years ago. He says he's never felt discrimination here, but he claims some of his friends have. And he's uneasy over the tenor of the gay rights debate. "They're trying to make us look like perverts, real monster who are after their kids," he complained the other night. "I resent it. It simply isn't true."

Perhaps levelheadedness is too much to expect in any discussion of sex. But it's hard to exaggerate the level of emotion here over this Tuesday's vote after a campaign that the Miami Herald said has "created a witch-burning hysteria more appropriate to the 17th century than the 20th."

The reason: Miami is the first major city in the nation to be faced with declaring what is thinks of homosexuality by popular vote. The question is whether to repeal an ordinance, passed last January, that bans discrimination against homosexuals in housing and employment.

Miami has found the issue has created a greater intensity of fear than any issue ever to come before voters here. "Why? "Because you're dealing with sex and that's the subject handled with the least maturity of anything," said clinical psychologist Florence O. Wechberger.

Visit a meeting of Save Our Children, which collected more than 62,000 signatures to force the repeal referedum, at North West Baptist Church. It's the same church Anita Bryant, the singer and television's Frorida orange juice lady, attends, and it was its pastor, the Rev. F. Williams (Brother Bill) Chapman, who apparently helped convince her that homosexuality is an "abomination of God."

Talk to the well-scrubbed men and finely dressed women who sit spellbound as Bryant sings "Jesus Loves Me" to a group of kindergarten kids, or as Chapman rails against "the unnecessary homosexual recruiting ordinance."

You find these people are scared to death. They fear homosexuality more than war, taxes, race or poverty. "It's against God's word," states George Heinold, a clerical worker.

Walk along East 7th Avenue in Hialeah, a blue-collar neighborhood. Talk to the people who live in the modest flat-roofed stucco ranch houses. Three-fourths of them are Cuban exiles. The men voice a macho view of sex; the women are family-minded. "I'd be disgraced if one of my children became a homosexual," one 50-year-old woman said today on her front lawn. "I'd be very hurt. It's something terrible, something unnatural. They'd never be happy."

Others aren't that different on this issue. Their fear is for their children; they don't want their kids to be gay.

The gay's fears are of oppression. Miami has reputation of tolerance for gays, and most homosexuals look on the gay rights ordinance as an important steppingstone in their battle to seek legitimacy for their lifestyle. "This is our Selma," said Mike Scott, a San Francisco gay political organizer. "That's why so many of us are here."

Visit the R & R Club, a leather vest and denim gay bar on the edge of downtown, or the Candlelight, a sedate upper-clss bar near Cocoanut Grove, with Scott. Listen to the gays talks of lost job opportunities, double lives, and frustrating internal struggles to accept their homosexuality.

At the Candlelight, Bruce Hough, a well-known female impersonator under the name of Trixie Thompson by night, tells how he is an office manager in a straight engineering company by day.

"My secret is that I'm gay," he says 'I don't know quite what would happen if I came out front about it."

What will the referendum mean for gays? "It wouldn't have made any difference if it weren't for Antia Bryant," said Rick Johnson, a gay realter. "She made this a big issue. Now if the ordinance is repealed, it could make a great difference. We don't know first how, but it's sorry to think about it."

Actually, there may be less of an issue than meets the eye. Gay rights forces have failed to come up with real evidence of overt discrimination here. Besides, 36 other cities - including Washington, D.C. - have passed similar laws with little notice.

But if one believes Save Our Children, Miami will turn into "a hotbed of homosexuality," if the ordinance isn't repealed. If one believes the pro-gay groups, repeal would be like lighting a match to the Constituation.

Strategists for both sides have both fueled and fed on fear. Pro-gay forces say they have raised $350,000 for their campaign. Save Our Children reports $140,000. "What we had to do is educate the public . . ." said Mike Thompson, director of the Save Our Children ad campaign. "We realize many women regard homosexuals as inoffensive hairdressers and interior decorators who aren't a threat to anyone. They didn't realize the other side, the bad side." His answer literature and ads full of newspaper reports of sexual crimes.

Pro-gay forces took a different tack, designing a campaign around the slogan, "If one group's rights can be taken away, your rights could be next."

One brochure, for example, presented photos of the Ku Klux Klan, Sen. Joseph McCarthy, women marching for suffrage, and apartment ads "For Gentiles Only."

But if nothing else, the campaign raised the issue of gay rights to public debate. It has a little of everything required for a media spectacle: sex, religion, a children's crusade and stars (feminist Gloria Steinem, poet Rod McKuen, TV actor Ed Asner and producer Norman Lear weighed in on the pro-gay rights side against Anita Bryant.

A snapshot of Anita Bryant at a rally in the Little Havana section of Miami Friday night provides the flavor of the campaign. Stunning in a rose-colored dress, before a crowd of 400 Cuban exiles, a Bible in one hand, she declarse: "Gays are not asking for human rights. They're asking for human rots."

Later, tears come to her eyes, her chokes up. "You came here to get away from one sin [presumably communism] and it breaks my heart that if Miami becomes another Sodom and Gomorrah you may have to leave here, too." she said. Moments later, she ends here speech singing "The Battle Hymn of the Republic." Her audience loved it.

Bryant, of course, has almost become the issue as much as anything else. Gays have printed up T-shirts which say, "Anita Sucks Oranges," and "A Day Without Human Rights is Like a Day Without Sunshine."

John Campbell, a wealthy businessman who is chairman of the Coalition for Human Rights, said, "She deserves the Gay Unity Award. She and her people have done more to bring gays together than anything that ever happened here . . ."

Both sides are predicting victory on Tuesday. The Save Our Children forces are counting on a large religious (Dade County has about 120,000 active Baptists and about 100,000 Catholics) Republican, Cuban community and conservative vote. Pro-gay forces are counting on a large liberal, Jewish, Democratic, young professional, homosexual vote. "The election booth is the ultimate closet," one activist said.