Eleven years ago, when Karen decided to try for a baby with her long-term partner, Erika, she had no idea how to go about it.
She felt uncomfortable disclosing her lesbian relationship to her doctor and wasn't keen on using a sperm bank because she felt strongly that she wanted her child to know who its father was. In the end, by chance, a friend offered to donate sperm. "When I found out I was pregnant, I was over the moon with happiness," she says. "But back then, there wasn't any information for gay and lesbian couples so throughout the whole thing we felt isolated and totally unaware of any legal issues, which could easily have arisen." In fact, Barrie and Tony Drewitt-Barlow (pictured above) made legal history in 1999 when they won a battle to bring their twins, conceived via donor eggs and carried to term by a surrogate mother, home to Britain after they were born in America. The twins became the first British children to be registered as having two fathers and no mother.
Nowadays things are a bit different. We've got Elton John and David Furnish introducing their surrogate son, Zachary, on the front of OK! magazine. In February, we had Sex and the City's Cynthia Nixon introducing the world to the baby boy she had with her girlfriend, Christine Marinoni. Glee star Jane Lynch is stepmother to two daughters from her partner Dr Lara Embry's previous relationship. And there's even a gay adoption plot brewing in EastEnders. It's now so commonplace, a new bi-monthly glossy entitled Pink Parenting is due to hit the newsstands next month.
The magazine is the creation of long-term gay couple Jeff Crockett and Giorgiou Severi, who also publish Europe's leading fertility magazine, Fertility Road. The first issue features an interview with Ricky Martin talking about his twin boys, Valentino and Matteo, recipes from children's food expert Annabel Karmel, plus everything same-sex couples need to know about adoption, fostering and surrogacy.
Over the past 50 years, we have seen a complete shift in what the model of the family looks like and it appears the rise of the gay family is a big part of the next chapter. According to the Department for Education, there were 120 same-sex couples who adopted in 2010. Crockett and Severi cite figures from the 2000 American census, which revealed that 39 per cent of same-sex couples in the States between the ages of 22 and 55 were raising children. "Gay surrogacy or adoption is becoming a common-day occurrence, we are used to the idea. The world is ready for it now," Severi says.
Karen and Erika agree. After their less-than-happy experience 11 years ago, they decided to set up a website, Pride Angel, which is now the world's leading connection site putting lesbian and gay couples together with donors. It provides masses of information, including how to draw up the all-important donor or co-parenting agreements that outline financial and legal obligations. That Pride Angel now has more than 7,000 members is testament to how big this issue has become.
When Oskana decided to have a baby with her long-term partner, Stacey, they too were lucky enough to have a friend volunteer to donate sperm. They now have a two-year-old and a four-year-old, both of whom were carried by Oskana but adopted by Stacey within weeks of the birth. Now both mothers have names on the birth certificate and absolutely equal parenting rights.
"We sat down with the donor and worked everything out," Oskana says. "He wanted to have visibility but in a sort of 'distant uncle' kind of way. We agreed he would have no rights and no responsibilities and that he wouldn't be morally or financially obligated to do anything."
Stuart and Mark, who live near Manchester and have been in a civil partnership since 2008, took the adoption route. This month, the papers finally came through saying that the two young boys who had been placed with them since last May were officially theirs.
Even though it's now enshrined in law, in the Adoption and Children Act 2002, that same-sex couples get exactly the same rights as heterosexual couples when it comes to adoption, Stuart says he definitely felt they were treated differently because they were gay. "We went for an open evening at Stockport Council and noticed that our names were highlighted in red on the attendance register but nobody else's was," Stuart says. "But once we found the right agency – After Adoption – it was superb. They were very supportive, really thorough, and it really wasn't an issue that we were gay."
When London-based partners Scott and Greg decided to adopt, they put in an enormous amount of time researching which London council would be the most gay-friendly and discovered that many had never even had a same-sex couple on their books. They now have a two-year-old and a seven-year-old and Greg is an adoption champion for the British Association for Adoption and Fostering (BAAF).
"Often the assumption is that I am one half of a straight couple," Scott says. "People say things like, 'Oh, I guess his mother does his hair,' and so I find myself constantly having to tell people about our situation. It's like having to come out over and over again."
There are other concerns, too. What happens if you fall out with your donor? Or if you split up? And how and when do you tell your child where he or she really came from? None of these children has yet gone through secondary school, either, so it's impossible to say what issues that's going to bring, but many parents are concerned. "We are worried about the boys being bullied and it probably will be an issue later in life," Stuart says, "but we do think kids will find a reason to bully someone whether it's about having gay parents or not. So it's going to be all about how we prepare them to deal with that."
In January this year, Barnardo's in Wales issued a statement requesting that more same-sex couples come forward and offer to adopt. According to figures from Barnardo's Cymru, of 230 children adopted in Wales in 2009-2010, only five went to same-sex couples. There are 5,162 children in the care system in Wales, so it makes sense. And according to research by Birkbeck College, London University, same-sex couples can actually make better parents because their children cannot be conceived naturally so an active decision must be made either to adopt or find a sperm donor. In 2009, Stephen Scott, director of research at the National Academy for Parenting, found himself drawn into a controversy when he told the think tank Demos that "lesbians make better parents than a man and a woman".
Alex Drummond, a cognitive-behavioural psychotherapist with a specialism in sexual minorities, who works in South Wales, agrees with him. "Research papers on same-sex parenting have consistently come up with evidence that it is a positive and beneficial relationship," he says. "Children benefit from a greater appreciation of diversity issues, more tolerance and less gender-stereotyping.
"But in a sense there is no difference between a good same-sex couple and a good heterosexual one. What matters is the quality of relationship and the feelings of safety the children experience. So ultimately it's nothing to do with the sexuality of the parents, but the relationship they form with their children."
The Pink Guide to Adoption is out now – see www.baaf.org.uk for details. www.pink-parenting.com
Same-sex couples: the facts
* A 2007 ICM poll for Newsnight found that 64 per cent of people thought same-sex couples should be allowed to adopt.
* In a 2009 Populus poll, 40 per cent of men and 57 per cent of women said gay couples should have the same rights to adopt children as heterosexual couples.
* In the US, 39 per cent of same-sex couples aged 22 to 55 were raising children, according to the 2000 US census.
* Birkbeck College's and Clark University's research suggested that same-sex couples make better parents, and that children of two mothers were more aspirational and more confident that those who had two straight parents.
They found that children of gay parents were no more or less likely to be gay.
* Out of 3,200 children adopted in 2010, only 4 per cent were adopted by same-sex couples.
* The National Adoption Register suggests gay and lesbian adopters are more open to adopting older children and sibling groups.