LEE -- When they started working together in the early 1990s, Peggy Gillespie, a social worker and freelance journalist in Amherst, and Gigi Kaeser, an early childhood educator and photographer in the Pioneer Valley, had no idea how far the partnership would lead them.
Their work would become Family Diversity Projects, a non-profit organization that has created seven award-winning traveling photographic exhibitions that tour nationally and internationally to foster tolerance of diversity.
Gillespie was working on a cover story about multi-racial families for the Boston Globe when she and Kaeser decided to collaborate on an exhibit of photographs and stories depicting local blended families. They called the project "Of Many Colors."
The exhibit was well received at local schools where it was shown, so the pair decided to embark on a second project. This one -- "Love Makes A Family" -- focused on the families gay and lesbian couples create.
"I was not prepared for the amazing amount of prejudice," said Gillespie, stunned by the uproar that resulted in 1996 when the project was finished and ready for exhibit at local schools.
"Where people had welcomed ‘Of Many Colors,' they freaked out about ‘Love Makes a Family,' and we couldn't put it in schools."
Now "Love Makes a Family" has come to the Lee Congregational Church, as one of many stops nationwide, and will remain on view there through Oct. 17.
But 13 years ago, these photograhs of loving parents and children touched off explosive anger.
"Every school community had meetings," Kaeser explained. "One right after another. When it got to the last school -- Fort River Elementary School -- five families in the community sued us and the school system," claiming the work amounted to sexual harassment.
Then GLAAD, the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, got involved.
"GLAAD came in on a white horse," Kaeser recalled. "They got it out of state court and into federal court. That maneuver, in and of itself, was what was so interesting. It became a national issue."
Eventually, the court threw out the case against them and determined the work was protected under the First Amendment.
"I was naïve when we started this, especially coming from Amherst," Gillespie said. "I was also astounded by the level of discrimination that existed and still exists."
She has not been surprised, though, at what "Love Makes A Family" revealed as time passed, and most of their young subjects have grown up and started adult lives of their own.
"They are all exactly the same as any other family," Gillespie said. "They care about soccer and ‘are the lunches made.
Kaeser noticed as she was working on the project how family life changed the national discussion -- and perception -- of rights for gay, lesbian and transgender individuals. People who had been "ghettoized" as singles moved into the suburbs to raise families.
"If they were raising kids, there was no way to be closeted," Kaeser said. "Anyone who has a 2-year-old knows that. It was interesting to see how important it was for the children that their families be respected and acknowledged. There families were just as good as anyone else's."
"I think these parents were exceptional," she said, adding that as self-selected participants, the parents they photographed are motivated and thoughtful in their approach to child rearing.
"Twenty years ago, two men raising a child together were assumed to be child molesters. So every single year they were homeroom parents, they coached soccer, they did everything they could do to be around other parents so that their kids could have friends over."
And though times have changed -- Massachusetts legalized same-sex unions in 2004, the first state in the nation to do so -- the exhibit's subjects, and its message, have remained relevant.
Pastor Bill Neil of the Lee Congregational Church said the exhibit of about 50 photographs has had a positive response here.
"The reaction has been entirely favorable," he said.
Guests have left comments in a notebook beside the work.
"Many people have been touched to see the different stories from the variety of families," he said. "It's really the love a family shares that makes a difference."
"The idea was always to represent people who are on the margins of the mainstream," Kaeser said. "You may think you don't know anyone who is a same-sex couple or transgendered, but if you can hear their stories and look into their faces you will be less afraid.
"The truth is that people are raising children, and they are raising them against the same challenges normal families face. People still need to hear that message."
If you go ...
What: 'Love Makes a Family' exhibit of photographs by Gigi Kaesar and text by Peggy Gillespie from conversations with the families
Where: Lee Congregational Church, Route 20
When: Through Oct. 17, weekdays 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. (Tuesdays 11:30 a.m.)