House Majority Leader Richard K. Armey (R-Tex.) came under sharp criticism from gay rights activists yesterday over an off-color joke he told about Rep. Barney Frank, an openly gay Democrat from Massachusetts.

According to an account published by Cox News Service, humor columnist Dave Barry approached Armey at a cocktail party following the Republican National Convention session on Wednesday and asked: "Are you really Dick Armey?" Armey replied: "Yes, I am Dick Armey. And if there is a dick army, Barney Frank would want to join up."

Armey spokeswoman Michelle Davis confirmed the joke but said it was told in a dismissive fashion after several other journalists at the party piped in with their own off-color remarks about the majority leader's name.

"He was trying to cut them off," Davis said. "He reacted the way most people react when they are tired of hearing the same old jokes."

In an interview, Barry backed up Davis's account.

"I'm no fan of Dick Armey, but this is completely out of proportion and out of context. Nobody there thought this guy was making a homophobic joke," Barry said.

David Smith, spokesman for the gay rights group Human Rights Campaign, dismissed that explanation and demanded an apology from Armey.

"He is trying to weasel his way out of it with a lame excuse. This man is the majority leader of the United States House of Representatives, he understands the impact his remarks have. He should apologize to Barney Frank and he should apologize to the entire gay and lesbian community," Smith said.

Frank, for his part, said the joke stepped on the message of tolerance that GOP presidential nominee George W. Bush attempted to convey to voters during his acceptance speech Thursday night.

"I think the Bush people must be annoyed because here they put on this elaborate show of inclusiveness, and then Dick Armey reminds people what the Republican Party leadership is really like, with a gratuitously nasty bigoted comment," he said.

It is not the first time Armey has had trouble in regard to Frank. In a 1995 interview he referred to him as "Barney Fag," quickly correcting himself and dismissing the gaffe as a slip of the tongue.