When Michele Zavos and several other lesbian mothers visited the director of a Washington area private preschool in the late 1980s to ask about enrolling their children, his response stopped them in their tracks.

"He said to us, `Well, we have lots of families here with problems,' " Zavos, a Washington lawyer, recalled. "None of the kids got in."

Fast forward to a conference last year of private school educators in Maryland. After Zavos recounted the incident, a woman approached with an update. "She wanted me to know that the executive director is no longer there and the school is not like that anymore," Zavos said.

A decade after gay couples in the Washington region began forging new notions of family by creating their own, Zavos and other gay parents say they have found increased acceptance from the broader heterosexual community.

The "gay-by boom," with its reliance on adoption, alternative insemination or surrogate motherhood, remains controversial for some religious and political leaders. But gay couples, gay-rights groups and local professionals who deal with children say the sporadic discrimination has been outweighed by more welcoming contacts with schools, co-workers, pediatricians and baby-sitting co-ops.

"We feel accepted," said the Rev. Meg A. Riley, a Unitarian Universalist minister who lives with her partner and their adopted 2-year-old daughter in Takoma Park. "We're part of the neighborhood potluck dinner group. We swap baby-sitting. . . . Everyone knows that Jia has two moms, and the kids know it's just the way it is."

Once termed "the most planned parenthood in the world," families headed by gay men or lesbians now number in the tens of thousands, according to Ray Drew, executive director of the San Diego-based Family Pride Coalition, which has 15,000 such families on its rolls.

The overwhelming majority of about 2 million parents who are gay are raising children from earlier heterosexual marriages, according to Drew. But for gay couples who want their own children, there are more resources than ever. Scores of Internet sites offer information about adoption and sperm banks; children's storybooks feature same-sex parents; and physicians and hospitals are more open to helping.

"There may be a reluctance or avoidance on the part of older pediatricians to deal with these families," said David Nagle, a pediatrician with Kaiser Permanente Health Care at Children's Hospital. But "the vast majority of younger pediatricians are very open to a wide array of . . . different family structures."

Even some clergy members are indirectly blessing gay-headed families by baptizing their children.

"I make no distinction if it's a child of a lesbian couple or a child of single parents," said the Rev. Susan Blue, rector of St. Margaret's Episcopal Church in the District, who recently baptized a child adopted from China by a lesbian couple. "I see no distinction."

In addition to the increased availability of donor banks and surrogate mothers, the rise in gay-headed families has been aided by a greater willingness among adoption agencies to accept gay men and lesbians as parents. Only Florida legally bars them from adopting.

"There has been a tremendous growth in the visibility of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender couples as adoptive parents," said Bill Pierce, president of the District-based National Council for Adoption, an association of private adoption agencies. "It's part of the general move in the culture toward an acceptance of gays, lesbians, bisexual and transgender people."

Such families have also been strengthened by a growing number of judges willing to approve "second-parent" adoptions for gay couples. Long common in heterosexual marriages, these adoptions give full parental rights to the non-biological parent, or stepparent -- rights that can be crucial if the biological parent dies. Such adoptions are now commonplace for gay couples in the District and 20 states, including Maryland. They have not occurred in Virginia.

Support groups also are flourishing. In the Washington area, Rainbow Families allows children of about 130 gay parents to meet other children with same-sex parents at monthly picnics, skating classes or other gatherings.

At the same time, however, gay activists report a growing number of bitter custody battles among couples who have split. Since no state recognizes same-sex marriage, estranged couples cannot use the legal framework of divorce laws and family courts to resolve such disputes. Without a "second-parent" adoption, the non-biological parent has little leverage.

A national coalition of gay activists recently issued guidelines for avoiding custody disputes, urging parents to focus on the children's welfare. These battles, warned Kate Kendall, executive director of the San Francisco-based National Center for Lesbian Rights, "threaten the very significant but nevertheless fragile gains we have made for lesbian- and gay-headed households."

Gay parenting remains unacceptable in some circles. The Family Research Council, a conservative political organization that openly urges homosexuals to change their orientation, opposes the idea of gay men and lesbians having children.

"In a homosexual household, not only is one of the sexes missing, but the children are confronted with abnormal sexuality being presented as the norm," said Robert Knight, the council's senior director of cultural studies. "Having to explain to peers that you have two mommies or two daddies is a burden no child should have to bear."

At the private Lowell School in Northwest Washington, which actively recruits gay-headed families as part of its commitment to diversity, Director Abigail Wiebenson reports a mixed reception from parents.

"Among many families there is greater acceptance, and among some families there is some leeriness," she said. The reservations arise "not because they don't like these families and their children," she added, but because "they are worried about how they can best describe to their own children families who don't look like their families."

Barry Kessler and David Hankey, a couple since 1985, spend countless hours in the nursery of their Baltimore town house with the new love of their lives. Her name is Helen, and she is 5 months old.

"We just wanted to have a child so badly," said Kessler, 41, a museum curator. "There was this place in our hearts that we had this love . . . to give a child. It's just a deep feeling."

Memories of their own happy childhoods fed their longing for a child, explained Hankey, 42, a lawyer. "You're happiest when you're surrounded by people you love and who love you," he said. "And that pretty quickly translates into family."

For several years they considered adopting before they met a lesbian who agreed to be a surrogate mother. After Helen's birth, many of Hankey's corporate clients sent baby gifts, and 120 people came to her baby-naming, a traditional Jewish rite presided over by a rabbi.

Kessler has taken leave from work to care for Helen, who also has two sets of doting grandparents. He and his daughter "just blend in" at a neighborhood parenting group, he said, where he and other parents "talk about whose baby is eating what food, whose baby got a rash, who's going to join the swimming pool this summer."

Kessler and Hankey said heterosexuals seem to look at gay men and lesbians differently once they become parents. "You have this experience in common, and that reduces the alienation," Kessler said.

When Alice Deighan and her partner, Scout, decided to have a child, Deighan was surprised to find a book on lesbian parenting at the public library in Shirlington. She was even more surprised by the gray-haired librarian's reaction.

"She said with a big smile, `Oh, you're going to have a baby!' It was just so delightful," said Deighan, 36, a sign language interpreter with the Environmental Protection Agency. "I thought, `Wow, things are really changing!' "

She and Scout, 33, a consultant who uses only her first name, have two red-haired boys, Dwyer, 3 and Dayton, 1. Each woman bore one child, conceived with sperm from the same anonymous donor, who was selected from a bank partly because of his Irish-Scottish background.

Kathy Graham's co-workers at Maryland's Department of Human Resources in Baltimore threw a baby shower five years ago when they heard that her longtime partner, Carolyn Hayes, was pregnant.

"We were all very excited, just as we would be if Kathy had a husband," said Kedren Crosby, who helped organize the shower. "You're just happy when a child comes into the world with decent parents."

Hayes, 45, a technical recruiter, and Graham, 40, now have two sons who are biological brothers, because Hayes conceived both with sperm from the same sperm bank donor. Graham quit her job to care for Jamie, 5, and Robin, 1.

Jamie calls his mothers by their first names. But when he was younger, "I became `Mommatoon' and Kathy was `Mommakathy,' " said Hayes. He has wished aloud for a dad and enjoys the company of adult men, so they plan to find him a Boy Scout troop when he's older.

"It's not like he would like to get rid of us," Hayes said. "He'd like to add a dad to us."

Several lesbian couples said school officials do not blink when two parents of the same sex show up for consultations or a child wants to make two Mother's Day cards.

Most research on children of gay couples indicates they have no worse social or behavioral problems than children of heterosexual parents. But since most studies have, by necessity, focused on younger children, there is little research on how growing up in such families might influence a child's sexual identity.

"What we know about those children is that they seem to be developing pretty much like other people's children," said University of Virginia psychology professor Charlotte J. Patterson.

Opponents of gay parenting call the research "severely flawed" because, as the Family Research Council's Knight said, it covers a small number of "self-selected" subjects who favor gay parenting as a model.

Teresa Williams and Jo Deutsch, of Cheverly, who each bore one of their two sons with sperm donated by friends, say they don't care what sexual orientation Jacob, 8, and Matthew, 4, have as adults.

"What we express," said Deutsch, a labor lobbyist, "is that this is something you're going to know, and if you're gay, that's great with us, and if you're straight, that's fine with us. As long as you are comfortable with who you are."

But even if gay parents wanted to influence their children's sexual orientation, said American University history professor Vanessa Schwartz, they probably couldn't. She points to her daughter, Rachel, 4, who resists suggestions that Cinderella could be happy with another Cinderella.

"She says, `No, Mom, she has to find a prince!' " said Schwartz, 35, who lives in the District with her partner and Rachel's other mother, Rebecca Isaacs.

"My own child," sighed Schwartz, "does not make the leap that Cinderella could find another Cinderella."

CAPTION: Teresa Williams, left, and Jo Deutsch whoop it up with sons Matt, center, and Jacob at their home in Cheverly. Each woman gave birth to one of the boys; the fathers are friends of the couple.

CAPTION: Teresa Williams, left, and Jo Deutsch whoop it up with sons Matt, center, and Jacob at their home in Cheverly. Each woman gave birth to one of the boys.

CAPTION: Jacob Deutsch Williams, 8, who is home-schooled by his parents, plays "war" with Teresa Williams using math cards.

CAPTION: Working dad David Hankey arrives home and greets stay-at-home dad Barry Kessler and their daughter, 5-month-old Helen, born to a surrogate mother.