SAN JOSE, Calif. (AP) _ Lotus Development Corp.'s pact with its homosexual employees gives new hope to gay and lesbian workers, who have been seeking recognition and rights in hi-tech Silicon Valley for nearly a decade.

Last week, the Cambridge, Mass.-based company announced it would let workers who have long-term same-sex partners sign contracts to qualify them for the same benefits offered to employees' spouses.

On Monday, Silicon Valley's gay computer employee counterparts praised the decision and vowed to seek similar deals.

''This is what we've been striving for for years,'' said Don Nelson, a Lockheed Corp. worker and president of High-Tech Gays, a 500-member Silicon Valley professionals' organization formed in 1983. ''The Lotus decision certainly allows us to hold that company up as an example.''

''I think we've got some momentum going here now,'' added Bennet Marks, a member of Apple Lambda, a 5-year-old homosexual employees' group at Apple Computer Inc.

''It's hard to be a trend setter when it comes to things like this. I think Lotus has shown it can be done. This will help us,'' Marks said.

Lotus, which makes the most popular computer software spreadsheet program, on Friday became the first major U.S. company to offer benefits to partners of its gay employees. Benefits include medical and dental care, vision and hearing coverage and bereavement leave.

Lotus estimates 10 percent of its 3,100 workers are gay - a percentage that gay advocates say applies to the general population.

''There's certainly been some movement in some private companies and some governments, but there hasn't been any giant sweeping movement,'' said Judy Rickard, president of the Bay Area Municipal Elections Committee, which endorses politicians. ''Perhaps this will open the door.''

Companies in Silicon Valley and the rest of the San Francisco Bay area generally are no longer hostile to homosexual employee groups, but gay rights leaders said there's still reluctance to deal with them.

Apple Lambda, which has been in talks with Apple Computer for nine months seeking benefits for gay partners, is officially recognized by the Cupertino- based company.

But at Lockheed Corp. and Hewlett Packard Co., for example, the groups representing homosexual employees are warned not to use corporate names in a way that could make it appear as an endorsement of the organization. As a result, the groups are called the Gay, Lesbian or Bisexuals At Lockheed (GLOBAL) and the Gay and Lesbian Employee Network at Hewlett-Packard.

''Companies are sensitive about this subject, although they discuss it now,'' said Greg Gloss, a member of the gay group at HP which began in the late 1970s as a loosely organized social outlet. ''Now that Lotus has set a precedent, we're hoping it can be used as a model situation.''

Last year, HP reworded its non-discrimination policy to recognize gay rights in reverse. Instead of including ''sexual orientation'' on a list of categories of groups that can't be discriminated against, HP cut out the list and replaced it with a broad anti-discrimination statement.

HP spokeswoman Mary Lou Simmermacher said the company now is reviewing expanding benefits to all types of non-traditional families. Digital Equipment Corp., a Maynard, Mass.-based company with a large Silicon Valley presence, also is thinking of expanding its ''non-traditional'' coverage.

Still, gay groups are battling companies' reluctance to increase health care coverage, said Andrew Swartz who is leading the Apple Lambda talks with the computer company. Experience with nonprofit groups that offer same-sex benefits shows that not many sign up so costs don't rise much, he said.

''The reason companies offer health insurance for spouses of straight workers is for peace of mind,'' Swartz said. ''This is true for my family, too.''