Amazing, absolutely amazing, one gay activist thought when the Wichita City Commission adopted a gay rights ordinance last fall.

"It's an idea whose time has come," he added out loud, "but the fact that it comes from Wichita has surprised us all."

The commission's action sent a rush of victory through the gay community of this conservative midwestern city, through its gay church, gay community groups and the half dozen or so gay night spots, be it western bar or noisy disco.

Rights for homosexuals, however, have yet to become a reality, for just as it has in other cities - like Miami and St. Paul - the gay rights law here prompted a backlash. Now, because of a referendum sparked mostly by some religious leaders, voters will decide today whether to repeal the law.

Whatever the outcome, the repeal movement has prompted a widespread public debate on homosexuality, once a matter to be kept secret. And gay leaders and others predict that the result will eventually be new attitudes here and elsewhere both toward homosexuals and among them.

"People who wanted to ignore the issue have been forced to take a position," Mayor Connie Peters, one of the three commissioners who supported the ordinance, says of the individuals and organizations - including churches - that have endorsed the measure on civil or human rights grounds. That support will remain, the mayor said, "even if the law is repealed."

There is no way you can go back to September 1977," Pat Kelso, a selfdescribed lesbian and leader of one group supporting the law, said of the new openness and newly found activism and unity among the gays here.

In fact, national leaders in the gay movement, while disturbed that two U.S. cities have repealed gay rights laws and others have referendums pending, say the unprecendented public discussion of homosexuality is working their long-term advantage as others, for the first time, learn of acknowledge homosexuals who do not fit the stereptypes of years past.

Bruce Voeller, co-executive director of the National Gay Task Force in New York, says the public discussion of homosexual rights has reduced harassment of gays in both Miami, even after Dade County's gay right law was repealed, and New YOrk, where five efforts to adopt such a law have failed.

Here in Witchita, a city of 265,455 where the Chisolm Trail once passed and where the heydays of wheat and livestock have given somewhat to aircraft manufacturing at Cessna, Beechcraft and Leariet, it is estimated that perhaps 5,000 homosexuals are open enough to attend gay bars, church services and other activities such as Gay Pride WeeK.

There is a local chapter of a Catholic organization of gays and a student homosexual group at Witchita State University.

For whatever reasons, gay bars tend to be clustered on the city's south side, where much of the blue-collar opposition to the homosexual rights law lies. Uneasiness characterizes the relationship between the oftentimes windowless gay bars and their neighbors. A newcomer is instantly noticed amid the music, lights and conversation inside.

"We've made it acceptable" to many "to be gay in Wichita," said Robert Lewsi, an avowed homosexual and member of the Religious Caucus for Himan Rights, a church-based group formed here to counter the Baptist and Catholic-dominated repeal movement.

"The whole strategy of homosexuals," said the Rev. Ron Adrian, a leader in the repeal movement, "is to get homosexuality recognized as a normal lifestyle and an accepted lifestyle - and they're getting a lot of publicity, that's for sure.

Indeed, homosexuality has been discussed here in high school assemblies, at civic club luncheons and in churches. Lewis says he has addressed five high school groups and appeared on television every week for the past year. The newspapers have been flooded with pro and con letters and articles on the city's gay community.

Adrian is pastor of the Glenville Baptist Church and president of the Concerned Citizens for the Community Standards, which, before the gay right issue, had been successful in shutting down X-rated theaters and cleaning up pornographic bookstores.

The group collected 31,000 signatures to force today's vote on whether to repeal the ordinance, which forbids discrimination in housing, employment and public accommodations because of sexual preference.

The ordinance was adopted 3 to 2 by the City Commission on Sept. 27 after a series of long public hearings. Opponents claimed, in part, that there was no discrimination against gays, but as the hearings wore on, antigay statements by employers, landlords and others made it clear there was> Mayor Peters said.

Adrian and others expressed fears about the impact of gays on children. "Homosexuals," one woman said "can't reproduce so they have to recruit."

Peters says the commision may not reflect Witchita's overall thinking, because voter turnout is relatively low in commission elections. And whatever the city's image as a Bible Belt town, she said, the commission has been relatively progressive on such issues as civil rights.

"Kansans are conservative, but they're not bigots, not all of them," one lesbian said. "If they were, we woundn't be voting on a referendum."

The Concerned Citizens for Community Stadards group has spent about $50,000 to urge repeal of the gay rights law, including $10,000 from a national antigay group headed by singer Anita Bryant, who appeared here several month ago.

In addition to the referendum here, voters in Eugene, Ore., will decide May 23 whether to repeal their homosexual rights ordinance. Other repeal efforts are under way among the 35 cities and counties in the country with similar ordinances.

"We don't like referendums," said Voeller, "but we think in the long run we win over people. They get to see the variety there is of us."

However much it is talked about, homosexuality still carries a price in Wichita. Gays talk of police harassment and abuse from heterosexuals. One gay describes life here as "better than Garden City but still not Kansas City" - this despite a new antigay bumper sticker in Wichita: "From Cowtown to Gaytown."

It is still, after all, somewhat of a small town, and you can't go anywhere without seeing you know. Hand-holding among gays in public is not yet accepted as it is in say, San Francisco. And the ordinance has not affected day-to-day life yet - with repeal considered a good possibility, few gays have complained of discrimination for fear of being left unprotected if the law is repealed.

The subtle pressures that accompany "going public" also make many gays reluctant to be open about their sexuality. Kelso, for one, plans to leave town next month.

So comfort for some gays is found in a western-style bar in a beer-only disco, where two women danced last week among the flashing coral and blue lights as a juke-box played "When Love Is Gone."