Some say they've always been around -- now they're just more out in the open.

Others feel that contemporary trends -- the gay rights movement, women's liberation, the increased numbers of women in the workplace -- have raised the total dramatically.

But more and more people are agreeing that friendships between gay men and straight women are becoming more visible, more commonplace, more accepted, not just the liaisons of such special personalities as Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift, Gertrude Lawrence and Noel Coward, or the married couple Elsa Lanchester and Charles Laughton. They now appear throughout the country in a wide range of occupations.

With 13 to 20 million practicing homosexuals in this country (nearly two-thirds of whom are said to be involved in relationships with women), and nearly 45 million women in the workface, many pursuing independent lifestyle, it should not be surprising that many gays and women are forging strong links between their formerly distinct societies.

"These friendships have had the effect of opening a new kind of dialogue between the gay and straight worlds, and of markedly reducing the pressure on gays to pretend they are heterosexual," says New Yorker John Malone, author of Straight Women/Gay Men -- A Special Relationship (Dial Press), a 200-page examination of 150 such relationships and their general social context.

"When gays are free to stop pretending," adds Malone, both the gay community and society at large benefit."

Gays, he says, "stop paying the price of anguish and guilt" that generally accompanies their attempts to suppress or deny their sexual preferences. And women are less likely to become "victims" in meretricious relationships based on the gay man's attempts to "cure" or disguise his homosexuality.

Malone, and many other gays, credit both women's liberation and the gay rights movement with the "general relaxation of stereotyping" which has permitted gays and women to establish open, honest relationships.

"Both movements left the members feeling secure enough in themselves to relate to other people, some of whom happen to be different," says a Washington journalist.

"The sense of communality between the two movements," adds Malone, is "intensified by common struggles against common enemies," such as straight men or conservative groups who see both movements as a "twin threat to the family structure and American morality."

In his book he who is arriving at more positive feelings about his homosexuality and straight woman who is discovering a heightened sense of her own independence are traveling in the same direction. . . . Both are reaching out towards an enhanced certainty of their own worth, and, in many cases, are able to assist one another in taking new steps forward."

Many members of Washington's mental health establishment view the friendships as harbingers of broader changes yet to come.

"The appearance of the 'new couple' is just the tip of the iceberg," says psychiatrist and George Washington University Prof. E. James Lieberman.

"It is the cutting edge of a broad-based social change in which men and women are learning to relate to each other as people primarily, not as sex objects. And straight men are beginning to do this without thinking they are deficient in some way."

Dr. John Money, professor of medical psychology and an expert in hormones and sexuality at Johns Hopkins, says that the change in sexual stereotying is long overdue.

"People get terribly skewed in their thinking when they talk about certain groups of the population. . . . There has never been available a true medical definition of just what is healthy and what isn't.There is every justification in the world for gay people to say their condition should be defined as a difference (such as left-handedness) rather than a sickness."

The women Malone interviewed were "not only actresses, writers and musicians . . . but also teachers, social workers, secretaries, medical personnel, corporate, executives and bank officers. . . . The backgrounds of the men were similarly varied."

The occupations of some two dozen men interviewed in Washington, many of them members of the Gay Synagogue Bet Mispocha in Southwest Washington, were similarly varied: lawyers, accountants, teachers, writers, statisticians, psychiatrists, government workers and physicians as well as the more stereotypical florists and hairdressers. Their female friends represent a broad spectrum of generally middle-class employment.

What do the ties offer the individuals who have them?

Freedom from sexual hassling for one thing.

"It's so nice to have a friend I can call for dinner or the theater," says a writer for a Washington television station. "We enjoy similar interests."

"It's such a relief," says a female executive in Malone's book. "I mean there are usually quite a number of men whose interest is sexual, and it's nice to have a relationship with a man that doesn't involve those tensions."

"You have friendships with women because you like them as people," says Mel Booser, leader of the city's Gay Activist Alliance, "and not because they are fulfilling fantasies or will be your live-in maid."

Booser has maintained a very close friendship with "the woman I almost married once."

"I always had friendships with women," he says, "particularly when I was coming out. They were much less threatened than my male friends who were polite but gingerly -- they were afraid of what it meant to be seen with me."

Women, aware of increased public tolerance of gays, tend to be critical of those who remain in the closet.

"When you have a gay friend who is honest with you," says a Washington beautician, "you have a loyal friend, a person you can count on. But I could never befriend a gay man who hid the truth about himself."

If these special friendships offer relief from sexual gameplaying, they also can result in tremendous problems if the friendships do become erotic.

Although people like Larry Uhrig, minister of the gay Metropolitan Community Church, feel "there is nothing weird or strange about it if after two people develop a close relationship, they have some sexual encounter," others complain about the frustration and pain of gay-straight sexual relations.

For the gay man, the strain often results from the realization, as one says, that "it just wasn't going to work. I realized my need for male sexual contact would continue, even though I found so much emotional satisfaction from my relationship with this woman."

Some say they envy gays "who only associate with men and can save themselves the pain of needing both."

To Patricia Schiller, a clinical sex and marriage counselor in Washington for 22 years, "the problem generally comes around the revelation of gayness. These ties are often so close, because -- absent the problem of sex -- everything else is so good. There is closeness, warmth, commitment to the other person, good emotional bonding, sparkling conversation. But when the pressure comes for erotic enjoyment, then the problems start.

"Sometimes, the woman thinks the bland sexual involvement is because the guy is Victorian, and she tries to loosen him up."

In Schiller's experience, sexual relationships that aren't honest from the start fall apart at some point "after the revelation." People who can accept differences intellectually, she says, are not able "to deal with it emotionally."

Despite these problems, some gays report compatible sexual experiences.

"I wouldn't say I go around looking for women to have sex with," says one, "but if I am attracted to a woman as a person, it often follows."

A young doctor recently concluded he "must be gay," after a six-year romance "with very good sex" was called off, because "I just couldn't commit myself to marrying her."

Women, who consider themselves typical of the new liberation -- "where sleeping," as one says, "with people doesn't mean you make babies" -- see nothing wrong with "having sex with someone just because he also likes men."

"Look if you fall in love with a man, and he treats you like a goddamn princess, you go ahead with it," says one married woman quoted by Malone.

Many straights assume that the revelation of a man's gayness is a single dramatic event, which immediately cuts him off from his past and separates him from straight society.

To the contrary, most say they arrive at the understanding gradually, continuing in the meantime, normal relationships. For some, this means sex with women, the search for a wife, or even marriage.

"Many psychiatrists, social workers, family physicians, clergy, think it is far more heterosexual," says Malone, "regardless of the pain it may cost him and others than for him to be honestly and contentedly gay."

Malone believes the gradual expansion of the dialogue already begun between gays and women can help promote the atmosphere of acceptance and self-acceptance which he says is essential for the well-being of "gays -- and everybody else."