It takes guts to apply to adopt children knowing that your life is about to be closely scrutinised. If you're a lesbian or gay individual or couple, that bravery is all the greater. I've heard countless stories from those I've worked with in the field of adoption of lengthy and disheartening struggles, of overt discrimination. And I know first-hand, from seven years' service on a local authority adoption panel, that some adoption workers reveal inadvertent prejudices even when they'd be horrified at the thought of being considered anything other than liberal.
If the individual or couple is fortunate enough to make it through the adoption process, this is often just the beginning. Out in the world of mother-and-baby groups and school runs, they face at best, endless intrigue, and at worst, additional bigotry and intolerance.
Little wonder that many lesbian couples take to the turkey baster instead, although, of course, men have fewer options when it comes to starting a family. For those that do weather the adoption journey (and interestingly, there are as many female couples as male), the level of dedication required clearly comes from one overriding wish: to give children a good experience of care. Indeed, lesbian and gay people disproportionately adopt those hardest to place, including older children, children with disabilities and children with emotional difficulties. It is also the case that these adoptions rarely break down, and there is evidence of healthy and happy outcomes for the children.
In fact, I can remember some circumstances where I'd say it was preferable for a child to be placed in a gay or lesbian household. One little girl, in particular, springs to mind who had been severely sexually abused. It was agreed by all the professionals involved that she would benefit from a two-parent family, but it was also felt that she would gain from slow, cautious reintroduction to men in her life. A lesbian couple rose to the challenge and the result was the emergence of a child with hope for the future, against all odds.
In his gripe against the forthcoming Equality Act (which will demand that Catholic adoption agencies consider gay couples as prospective adoptive parents), Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor has focused on the competing rights between Catholics and their personal conscience and of particular groups such as gay and lesbians. What I'm curious to know is where he - and the two archbishops of the Church of England who are supporting him - believes the rights of children, such as this little girl, fit in?
This is a particularly important question in a climate where more than 4,000 children need adopting in England alone. It is also particularly important in a climate where, unlike when I was adopted, adoption legislation now rightly considers that the welfare of the child is the overriding principle. The cardinal is seeking to drive a coach and horses through this fundamental principle and, worse still, he is borrowing the language of tolerance to express an intolerant standpoint that has serious consequences for young people and their futures.
Even more worryingly, there is an uncomfortable irony to the cardinal's argument, which has wider consequences. Unless Catholic adoption agencies are exempted from having to let gay couples pass through their doors, he says they may be forced to close down rather than "act against their consciences".
But if you look at the make-up of Catholic adoption agencies, which accounted for 4 per cent of the 2,900 UK adoptions last year, you'll often find a significant proportion of staff who are not Catholic, perhaps not even religious. Many choose to work in these agencies because of their long and successful history with some of the hardest-to-place children. Where would such an exemption leave these staff and their consciences? I know of one Catholic adoption agency whose panel is largely unreligious. "Could I go along with an agency that took the cardinal's view? I really don't know, " the panel's non-Catholic chair - who has a reputation for overseeing highly successful placements - said to me.
There's also the potential pressure that an exemption may put on local authorities, which are responsible for the vast majority of children who are adopted in this country. I'm certain that these organisations - many of whom have worked extremely hard in recent years to stamp out any form of prejudice against any minority - would feel uncomfortable about seeking prospective adopters from agencies so at odds with their own efforts. The result would be a possible end to close working relationships that have long led to successful adoptions.
Surely Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor would have done better to say nothing at all on the issue. After all, while the Equality Act, due to come into effect in England, Wales and Scotland in April, outlaws discrimination in the provision of goods, facilities and services on the basis of sexual orientation, no gay couple in their right mind would seek the services of a Catholic adoption agency, given the church's views on the issue of homosexuality. As such, these agencies already had, effectively, the get-out clause they needed, with no need whatsoever to kick up such a fuss.
The Prime Minister's office said this week that this is not a straightforward black and white issue, rather that it is one where there are sensitivities on all sides and that these must be respected. But I would argue it is as clear-cut and uncomplicated as is possible. The freedom to have views against particular sexual practice is one thing in terms of worship, but quite another when you try to import it into publicly funded social services.
This cannot be right in a democratic society that is striving for equality of opportunity and it certainly cannot be right when the direct result could be children having less chance of a secure, loving upbringing.
'As for our parenting skills, it's all come really naturally. It's incredibly rewarding'
Tony Fletcher, 39, and his partner, Dave Gifford, 49, adopted John, two years, 10 months, and Paul, two years and five months, at birth. They live in Florida. (ALL NAMES HAVE BEEN CHANGED).
We always knew we wanted kids. It was just something, when we got together 11 years ago, that we knew we'd do in the future. We did a lot of research on various methods such as surrogacy and donor eggs, and then we started thinking about adopting from countries like Russia or China. In the end, we decided that there were a lot of children in the States that didn't have loving families and needed them desperately, and we liked the idea of giving one of them a home. By then, we'd decided it was irrelevant whether our children were our flesh and blood.
Florida is not the easiest place to adopt, so we were very fortunate. We had a private agency and we got by through my partner applying as a single person and then, later on, we signed other papers that make me the legal guardian. It was a "don't ask, don't tell" situation.
Everyone has been great about the whole thing. Now our children are both in pre-school, we still haven't really faced any difficulties. I honestly think people see us just like any other family. Nobody mentions that we're gay, and it's great to live in a town where it's so accepted. I must admit that has been a nice surprise. You always expect to face some sort of prejudice, even though there are quite a few gay families in this neighbourhood.
John is quite bright and knows he has a daddy and a papa, whereas some other kids have a mommy and a daddy. But there are two other gay couples in the school, so he doesn't feel completely alone. We tell him families come in all shapes and sizes, and we'll explain it further when he asks further questions. To be honest, we just don't think about it that much because in 10 years, the world will probably much more accepting place - just as it's much more tolerant than a decade ago.
We both have an equal hand in raising the kids. We both work, so we have a nanny and that's great for having a female role model on an everyday basis. As for our parenting skills, it's all come really naturally. When we first adopted, people said you don't know what you're getting yourself into, but actually we find it quite easy. It's incredibly rewarding.
I've heard about the debate in the UK. You have to ask whether it's better for children to stay in foster care or residential homes, when there are all these healthy families that have so much love to give. The issue is not whether parents are single or a couple, gay or straight, but how much they have to offer to the child.
'We've received support and good wishes'
Lewis Campbell, 44, and James Russell, 38, adopted Sarah (not her real name), two and a half years ago
James and I never thought we'd have a family, but James's sister has all sorts of problems and decided, when she was expecting her second child, that she would put her up for adoption. We felt that that wouldn't be a very nice beginning for the child, and we just couldn't bear the thought of, later on, passing a child in the street and not knowing if it was her daughter. And there was no good reason why we couldn't offer the child a home. One day, we decided, "Let's do it!".
The local authority was great about it. I think they recognised the value of keeping Sarah in her family. Also, it wasn't as if we were strangers to children. James's mother has fostered kids all her life, and I'm the youngest of nine kids in a family where there are 28 grandchildren.
Of course, we'd considered the prejudice that we might face, but we've received mainly support and good wishes. The main criticism we've faced has been from the church. I remember when we went to get Sarah christened, some old dear was enquiring where the mother was, and when we said that Sarah was our adopted child, she made it very clear how disgusted she was.
The main response we get is surprise. We went to a clothing store recently to get Sarah a dress for a friend's wedding, and the shop assistant said, "Couldn't your wife make it today?". When I explained, she went really red. I always try to put people at ease in those kinds of situations. They're not to know.
Sarah is two-and-a-half now. She was only 10 weeks old when we got her, so she's known nothing else. Since she's been going to playgroup, she has asked about Mummy, and we've told her that she's not here. When she's old enough to understand, we'll tell her the truth.
James works four days a week and I work five. When we're both at work, we have a childminder. The childminder's eldest daughter asked the other day why Sarah has two dads, and the childminder explained that, just as a man and a woman can love each other and have a family, so can a man and a man, or a woman and a woman. She was quite happy with that explanation, and I think that I will take that tack when Sarah asks more questions. More of a worry for me is how other children will be with Sarah. I do worry a bit about that they might tease her.
The reason we've decided to get married in June is largely because of Sarah. We worry that if James, who actually adopted Sarah, passed away, how would the law stand concerning me as a parent? Nobody seems to be able to give us clear answers, and marriage seemed one way of addressing that. Also, time is trotting on and it feels the right time for us to do it. Both James and I couldn't imagine our lives without Sarah now. That's why I think the row in the headlines at the moment is disgraceful. It's bigotry in a very blatant form, and what's worse, it's from the very group of people who are meant to be loving and giving and understanding towards others.
'When I tried to foster in the UK, I wasn't even allowed to apply suntan lotion to the children'
Ivan Massow, 39, is an entrepreneur, politician and art lover. He lives in Spain and the UK
I fostered four young children for a year. I was helping a relation of an employee, whose children had a very troubled background. The children had the same mothers, but each of them had a different father and they didn't like the children living with me.
I had, once, considered adopting. I've done lots of work with the British Association of Adoption and Fostering, and they would like me to adopt. To be honest, I'd never really planned on speaking about this, but now I am planning on looking at the whole thing again in the next two months.
I don't think I'd try to do it in the UK now, though. We live in such a paranoid environment. When I tried to foster in the UK, I wasn't even allowed to apply sun-tan lotion to the children. I had to phone my lawyers to find out whether I was allowed to do so. They said no, and I had to find a female who was staying in the same hotel to do it.
The whole experience made me think this is such a nasty, suspicious, horrible country. We've taken the rules to a wild extreme. In Spain and France, they love children, and these thoughts don't even enter into people's heads. It's a completely different attitude. We've gone over the top.
I was the product of a not easy childhood, and I was adopted myself. That's one of the reasons I wanted to do it. I'm not saying that it's perfect for a single man like me to bring up a child, or even to do so if I were in a relationship. My personal decision would be - if I were going to adopt - that I'd want to do it as a single male. I would want to know there was an underlying framework that would never change for the child, if that makes sense. Rather than dragging someone else into it, and for it to potentially be unstable, I'd rather do it on my own and not have a partner. I think if a child has been messed up - if they have come from a troubled background - they want to know that there are some things that cannot change any more, and that they are safe.
Whether I'm single or in a relationship, my sexuality has very little impact on my abilities as a parent. Children are very capable of understanding quickly about sexuality. Being brought up by a gay man certainly doesn't turn children gay - quite the opposite it seems, I've never seen a gay adult who is the product of gay parents.
It's weird for me seeing that the children I tried to foster are now back in the same environment as before I looked after them. They are living on estates, they will grow up in crime. With me, they would have been privately educated, they would have had everything, and they would have been loved. They loved me. And they knew about my sexuality from day one. Only the youngest child didn't know, obviously; she wouldn't have understood what we were talking about. The other kids would joke about it. Beyond that, they genuinely loved having someone who was solid and stable and who looked after them and spent time and told them off for not cleaning their teeth.
In a really perfect world, maybe it's better for children that they are brought up by a male and female married couple. But, you know, it's not a perfect world.
I will do it again. I just won't do it in the UK. And that child will be safe, and loved, and not tampered with. I don't know what some people think gay people do, but I like blokes - not three-year-old children.
'The issue is always how it looks to society'
David Crothers, 42, and his partner Richard Stubbings, 49, from Norwich. They are currently awaiting approval from social services to become adoptive parents.
We're quite early on in the adoption process, but so far everything is going fine. My partner, Richard, and I have been together for 20 years - it will be 21 years next month. Now that we're settled, we feel that we're in a position to take on the challenge of having a child. So far, our friends have been hugely supportive and social services have been amazing.
The Catholic Church will always have some issues, won't it? If it's not racism it's homophobia, if it's not homophobia it's something else. My concern is that no one ever sits down and thinks about the children. It's always about how it looks in society. I find it quite disturbing that people would rather have a child in a dorm, with more than 20 children who get no personal care, than have a happy couple adopt that child. The Church needs to progress as much as the rest of society.
If you're heterosexual, you can decide to have a baby, think it out and go through the natural process. As a gay couple you have to go through so much more - and it's the same for straight couples who want to adopt. Finding the right parents, doing police checks - all that is absolutely correct for people trying to find adoptive families for children, but why should it take years? We have to go and get experience with children - the fact that we have nephews, nieces and godchildren is irrelevant - so if we have to go and read to children in a school then we'll do it. To go through what you go through as a gay couple trying to adopt, you have to be really passionate about adopting, which is why it took us so long to decide to do it. I'm 42 and my boyfriend is 49 and only now do we feel ready.
A lot of people have asked us: "Are you going to get one from overseas?" I can't think of anything I'd rather not do. There are so many kids in our own country who could benefit from a good home. It must be awful not wanting to go home at night. That's your goal - that your child should want to come home at night and be safe, warm and loved.
The only thing that has got my goat so far is the fact that when we said we'd be happy to adopt a black child, that's not going to happen because we're not black. I can't help feeling that that in itself is a cause of racism, thinking that a white couple can't bring up a black child. It would be lovely if they got rid of the idea that the colour of your skin affects adoption. I find that more disturbing than anything else.
I certainly don't think that children adopted by gay couples will grow up confused about their sexuality just because they have same-sex parents.
'Adoption by gays is more common in the States - even Catholics don't think anything of it'
Andrew Hewitt, 45, and Tony Wright, 46, have two adopted children - Bryan, seven, and Gabe, four. They live in central London
Although Tony and I are both English, we spent 20 years in the States, returning two years ago. Towards the end of our time there, we decided to adopt. It was just after Tony lost his father, so the concept of becoming a father became all the more pertinent to him, although I'd always wanted to do it. We adopted through an American agency that worked with an orphanage in Guatemala, and we got Bryan when he was nearly four years old and Gabe when he was 15 months old. We'd tried other agencies, but discovered that hardly any countries allow gay couples to adopt, and only certain ones allow single men to adopt, which is what I did in the end.
The only other hurdle that we faced being gay was that a lot of lawyers wouldn't work with us. I think they preferred the idea of working with nice heterosexual couples, where it was less likely that there would be any complications for their fee. We didn't face any other discrimination, but I think that's partly because we are well-educated, nicely presented middle-class people.
When it came to actually being dads, we found that many people welcomed us, particularly in the Hispanic areas of LA - I suppose because of the children's Guatemalan backgrounds. Also, gay adoption is more common in the States - even Catholics don't think anything of it. Back here, the children's situation stands out more, but everyone is very nice about it.
We've been very open with the kids about being gay. We tell them that there are all kinds of different families, and they accept that. One thing that we did feel that we had to do recently was to remove Bryan from a Church of England school. We felt that if the archbishop was asking for exemptions against laws against prejudice, how could the church provide the basis of the education that the children need? To me, the current debate is not an issue about my rights, but of children's right to a family life.
I think we're probably quite similar to a lot of other professional couples in terms of our parenting style - trying to juggle careers with seeing the kids. Andrew has more time because of his job, but we both do pretty well. They call us Papa and Daddy. I don't think our being same-sex parents will be a problem for Bryan and Gabe as they grow up. In fact, there are other aspects of their lives that create more difference - the fact that they're adopted and come from another family. Frankly, for two boys, there is an element of having two dads that's quite cool.
We never quite know how many people are discriminating against us because, as with anything like racism or homophobia, when people are faced with individuals, the level of discrimination is quite small. But I am quite optimistic about it. What is common is people feeling embarrassed when they ask, "Where's the mother?", and we explain the situation. But that's simply to do with a lack of familiarity.
The vast majority of people we meet, when confronted with two happy kids and two very loving parents, would find it difficult to recognise some of the things being said in this debate. Certainly, it would take a fairly unusual human being to see us in our everyday lives and say that an adoption agency would have been right to deny us the opportunity to bring them up.
Interviews By Rebecca Armstrong, Ed Caesar And Kate Hilpern