In the beginning of his career as a gay rights lobbyist, Stephen Endean had it rough.

He remembers one meeting with a state assemblyman, in his home state of Minnesota, when the man -- finally comprehending Endean's position -- starting screaming about "faggots" and "men who wanted to be women," and as Endean beat a dignified retreat lobbed a book off the back of his head.

Endean also remembers a politician who, in the middle of his pitch, simply got up and left the room, refusing to come back until Endean was gone.

This was seven years ago, and the status of gays in politics has changed. But Endean, who heads the Gay Rights National Lobby and is the only full-time gay rights lobbyist on Capitol Hill, still finds that his cause is an uncomfortable issue for many politicians.

"There's not a major demand from people to be taken to lunch by the Gay Lobby-they'd, um, twitch.

Gays as a political group have been more visible than ever before this year.

Seventy-seven gay delegates attended the Democratic National Convention; there were two at the Republican National Convention -- the first the Republicans ever had. Yet according to Endean the building of a "whole political infra-structure" is just begining -- even though gay rights, to many politicians in these increasingly conservative times, is a frightening thought. p

"We're increasing, but our enemies are, too," he said. "So what most politicians would like right now is to just not have to take a position one way or another."

He said this is in the Gay Rights office, a drab and crumbling two rooms in a downtown building. There's a Lily Tomlin poster next to a map detailing congressional districts: "The Joy of Gay Sex" tucked discreetly beside a stack of phone books; a photo of a good-looking man, facing the visitor on Endean's desk. ("The man I date," Endean casually says.) Except for these individual touches, it might be any down-at-the-heels group.

Funds here are scant. The organization's annual budget for lobbying is $50,000 -- as opposed to the $8 million Endean claims the New Right groups have to spend -- and were Endean to claim all of his $18,000 annual salary, the office would close. He takes instead $15,500 and works "70 to 80" hours a week. His dress is classic and conservative, the lobbyist's requisite navy blazer and tie. His style is professional. When he talks tactics, it's as a seasoned lobbyist, saying that you have to pick your targets; you don't waste time banging your head against the wall. Gay Rights "has clearly moved out of the '60s -- doing it in the streets doesn't work anymore." He's also informed. When he speaks of a bill he can quote you the number, chapter, and verse.

The House has just passed an amendment -- HR7548 -- which "could cut off legal services to gays," he said. "It was passed 290 to 113. We'll be working vigorously in the Senate to get that amendment defeated."

He is 32 and has been in politics a long time. Politics, as he says often and sadly, has been his whole life.Nor did he intend it to be the life of a lobbyist -- he had dreamed of elected office. He worked toward that. A native of Bloomington, Minn., and a graduate of the University of Minnesota, he had been active in politics since he was 18, "going off like an old war horse every time there was an election." He worked on a gubernatorial campaign, worked for local politicians. As for being gay, he knew what it meant politically, so he did not admit it, even to himself.

"I decided I would stop being gay so I could pursue my electorial career," he said quietly. "I suppose I was naive."

It didn't work. It was a "nightmare." At the close of the governor's campaign on which he had been working, Endean came out of the closet, at the age of 22. "I knew when I came out I closed a lot of doors to political office, or I thought I had," he said. "It was a hell of a choice."

He became a lobbyist in the Minnesota state legislature, the first full-time paid lobbyist for gays in the country. The pay was not good -- $300 a month -- so he supplemented it working as a hat-check clerk in a gay bar. The hours were not good either: a full day in the legislature, then off to the bar till 1 the next morning. But he was proud of his work: the "consenting adults" bill to repeal the state's sodomy laws; the anti-discrimination bill which attempted to have gays included in the state's civil rights bill. The latter never became a law, but in the years he worked on it, it came close.

Now he has been in Washington nearly three years. He says it is "painful" to hear a prominent senior saying, of Cuban homosexuals, that he doesn't want "Castro's scum"; he admits he is hurt when he hears of proposed cutbacks to homosexuals who need legal aid.

But he never gets openly angry, because, he says, you're not going to pick up a whole lot of votes in the Senate calling anyone names. And he says that some of the anger he holds inside him, some of that old pain, may finally help his cause.

"I would have loved to run for office, I would have loved that," he says. "The fact that that was closed to me -- the fact that I suffered a lot because of society's misunderstandings -- is maybe part of the drive. To try to make it better so that the next group of gay people don't have to go through the same s---."