Recently, the news that Rock Hudson has AIDS was the lead story on all the major television networks. It was also a front-page article in lots of newspapers, some of which had been prominently carrying the story for days. The news, lest you miss the point, is not just that Hudson may be dying but that he is probably gay. The story reflects the country's confusion about homosexuality. We're not sure whether we're dealing with a scandal or a tragedy.

No network or newspaper that I saw addressed itself to the issue that must have been right at the top for most people: this he-man actor, this screen lover of Doris Day and Linda Evans, the man who rocked James Dean with a punch to the mouth in "Giant" and bedded Elizabeth Taylor in the same movie, could be gay. The surprise and shock of discovery -- a key element in any a really good news story -- was here not even acknowledged.

But Hudson himself would have to admit that nothing he ever did either in the movies or on television would warrant all this media attention. His screen acting days are long past him. To young people, he must be almost unknown. Even at the height of his career, he was not comparable to either Cary Grant or Clark Gable, both of whom had screen careers that lasted much longer than Hudson's. Immensely likable and a star in an era when they shone brightly, Hudson nevertheless is not one of Hollywood's all-time greats. No, there is something more to this story and we all know it.

Even the gay community seems to have missed the point. After sincerely commiserating with the hospitalized Hudson, spokesman after spokesman then said the actor was performing a public service: he was putting a familiar face on AIDS, a dreaded disease. No longer, they said, would the public ignore it. No longer would AIDS victims be scorned. Now AIDS was in the public domain, like cancer, and everyone would be concerned about it.

Wrong. Most people will become concerned about AIDS when it is clear that it is no longer largely limited to gays -- when it becomes a threat to anyone. Until that time -- and there are hints it is fast approaching -- the disease will be seen by heterosexuals as something akin to famine in Ethiopia -- a tragedy, for sure, but not something they themselves have to worry about. It happens to people who are, well, different.

Others, though, take the even less charitable view that AIDS is some sort of divine retribution for the presumed sin of homosexuality or that it is, no matter what, avoidable: Don't be a homosexual and you won't get AIDS. It's impossible to say just how many people think that homosexuality is, like political affiliation, a matter of choice.

It is clear, though, that that's the fundamental assumption of those, such as Jerry Falwell, who rant and rave about homosexuality. In their mailings, they talk about homosexuals as if they had sat down one day and said, "Gee, my life is too easy. I think I'll leave my wife and children and become gay."

The fact is that no one is sure what makes anyone a homosexual (or, for that matter, a heterosexual), and there may well be people who choose their sexual orientation as they do their dinner. There are many others, though, for whom the choice was already made. They are what they are.

The whole idea, then, that homosexuals can avoid AIDS by ceasing to be homosexuals makes about as much sense as saying that heterosexuals can cease being what they are. Simply labeling something as either abnormal or perverted does nothing but stigmatize and leads, in the end, to even movie stars leading secret lives -- heterosexual on the screen, homosexual off.

Rock Hudson's ultimate service may be not that he put a familiar, and therefore human, face on AIDS victims, but that he put a familiar and reassuring face on homosexuality. The Falwellian ogre in all his supposed amorality turns out to be nice, avuncular Rock Hudson: friend of the president, quintessentially American, tall in the saddle, screen lover to the likes of Elizabeth Taylor and fantasy lover of millions of women.

If ultimately people learn through Hudson that homosexuality is just another way of living and AIDS is just another way of dying, then this will have been his finest performance.