WASHINGTON (AP) _ Gay and lesbian activists left a meeting with President Clinton in the Oval Office full of hope about a new era of White House support for gay causes and forgiveness for the president's plans to be out of town during the gay rights march next week.

They described Friday's hour-long meeting as an important watershed in the gay rights struggle.

''I think it's clearly an indication that the signals continue to come from the highest level of leadership in this country that gay men and lesbians are part of the American family,'' said Torie Osborne, executive director of the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force, who organized the meeting.

Participants said a number of major issues were discussed, including gays in the military, proposed civil rights legislation to prevent discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, and government response to AIDS.

They said the president told them he still planned to issue an executive order on the ban on gays in the military by July 15. He also seemed generally supportive of the civil rights legislation, although he had not seen the details.

They also said an executive order to affirm anti-discrimination policies in the federal government was under discussion.

Most important, though, seemed to be the general tenor of the meeting with the president and his firm commitment to fight discrimination.

''This meeting symbolized the entry of lesbian and gay people into the mainstream of American life, and it is the president of the United States who, through his moral leadership, permitted that to happen,'' said Tom Stoddard, executive director of the Campaign For Military Service, an ad-hoc group working to overturn the ban on gays in the military.

The gay advocates appeared willing to let Clinton off the hook about his plans to be in Boston next Sunday, when thousands are expected to march in a gay rights demonstration in Washington.

Clinton is scheduled to attend a Senate Democratic retreat in Virginia that weekend, and then deliver a speech to a meeting of the Newspaper Association of America in Boston on Sunday.

The activists said Clinton seemed very interested in participating in the march in some way, possibly by a live hook-up from another location or by videotape. The White House had no specifics on any such plans.

The White House also denied rumors that both the meeting with Senate Democrats and the Boston speech had been set up to avoid the gay rights march.

But Steve Palmedo, vice president for program development for the publisher's association, said Friday that Clinton didn't confirm acceptance of the invitation to speak to the convention until Thursday, although it had been made in December.

Clinton, meanwhile, defended his record on gay rights.

''I have - I believe it's clear - taken a stronger position against discrimination than any of my predecessors,'' he said. ''And it is a position that I believe in very deeply, one that I took publicly in 1991 before there was any organized political support for me in the gay community.''

Among the White House officials present at the meeting was Bob Hattoy, a member of the personnel office staff who is HIV-positive and openly gay.

The activists who participated included: Tim McFeeley, executive director of the Human Rights Campaign Fund; Phill Wilson, president of the Black Gay and Lesbian Leadership Forum; Nadine Smith and Billy Hileman of the March on Washington for Gay Lesbian and Bi Equal Rights and Liberation; William Waybourn, executive director of the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund, a gay political action committee; and Andrew Barrer of Coalition '93.