05/23/2011 12:55 pm ET | Updated Jul 23, 2011

Coming Out in the Real World: What You Need to Know

With the much-publicized comings out of CNN anchor Don Lemon and NBA executive Rick Welts, it's easy to overlook what that experience is like for the hundreds of thousands of LGBT people who come out every year -- many of whom do it with ease; some of whom face outright hostility and rejection; none of whom make the front page (except when there's been a tragedy, like the suicide of Rutgers' freshman, Tyler Clementi, last year).

In fact, there's been a tidal shift in how -- and when -- people come out compared to a generation ago. We come out a lot younger than before -- some are not even in their teens yet -- and they come out differently. It's not unheard of for a young person who's never even kissed someone of the same sex to be comfortable coming out as "curious," "bi," or "questioning," mentioning this to her friends and sometimes her teachers and parents along the way without great fanfare. Or as a letter writer to Details put it, "It's not 'Are you?' or 'Aren't you?'; it's 'Will you?' or 'Won't you?'" (Not to mention that the boundaries between gay, lesbian, bi and trans are more fluid, and many young people share a distaste for labels of any kind.)

Sometimes, a declaration may be as simple and off-the-cuff as "I'm a lesbian," which is how one 10-year-old I know explained things to her parents one night over a dinner of mac 'n cheese. Or, "I'm having sex with _____," the name of the sex partner being perhaps the only clue to anyone's sexual orientation. Not long ago, one young man posted continual Facebook updates of the coming-out conversation he was having with his family, presenting it to the entire blogosphere in real time.

Indeed, the Web has facilitated coming out, first connecting young people to information about LGBT life that they might never have gotten from their families, schools or religious institutions, and then, perhaps more crucially, to one another. There has never been an easier time for young LGBT people to find each other, whether in chat rooms, on social networking sites, or through email, texting, GPS apps, you name it.

Of course, just because coming out is easier than it used to be for some people doesn't mean it's easy for you. Your family may harbor prejudice. Or your particular racial, ethnic or socioeconomic mix could present obstacles. Or you may fear being bullied or harassed. Then there's the fact that our vocabulary falls short of reality, describing only a few sexual orientations and gender identities. With all these potential stumbling blocks, don't think you're alone to feel confused or even afraid.

All of this is to say that there's no one way to come out. You may find yourself doing so spontaneously or in a deliberate, step-by-step process. You may sit down with a parent or best friend over a Coke or a rum-and-Coke, write an actual letter by hand, or simply tweet your news to the world in a nanosecond. The essential thing is to do it on your own terms.

Most people come out first to a close friend, often someone who is LGBT. Whether you spill the beans in one huge confessional or just mention your sexuality or gender identity in passing, treat whomever you tell with the same respect and consideration you'll be expecting in return. It's important that you trust this confidante, whether he's your best friend, a teacher, a work colleague, a professional counselor, or someone in your family. A recent poll on my website showed that nearly half of the respondents first came out to an LGBT friend, while a quarter started with a straight friend. Only one in eight told a family member first.

These four steps can be helpful:

1. Make a plan. Ask your confidante to go out for coffee, take a quiet walk or meet somewhere you will have privacy and feel comfortable. If there's any chance at all that the person might have a hostile or violent response, take that into consideration when you choose where to go. Explain beforehand that you have something personal you'd like to discuss, but don't make it sound too serious. Coming out is not like revealing a serious disease, an intractable problem, or a crime. (By the way, you can "acknowledge" your homosexuality but don't "admit" it -- "admitting" is something you do when wrongdoing is involved, and there's nothing at all the matter with your acknowledging who you really are.)

2. Consider all possible reactions. How your friend responds isn't really up to you -- although how you set up the conversation can help increase the likelihood of a favorable reaction. Usually, respect and trust beget respect and trust. Expect the best: acceptance, a warm embrace, words of support, as well as love and continued friendship. But prepare for the worst: rejection, anger, even the loss of the relationship. You may be equally surprised to find a friend had no idea, or to hear him say, "Oh really? That's no big deal," or, "I knew it all along." Each time you come out, you will have a better sense of how to prepare for the next time.

3. Do your research. Although it's not your job to educate people about what being gay or transgender means, some people you come out to may have questions, and knowing the answers can help you feel more confident about how you respond. "No, it's not a choice," you might need to say if asked why you are gay. If pressed further, you could ask, "When did you choose to be straight?" or, "Mom, I do hope you'll be a grandparent one day. There are lots of ways for LGBT people to have kids." If you can't find what you're looking for online, contact a group like PFLAG (Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) or GLSEN (Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network).

4. Keep it simple. You might start off with, "We've known each other for a very long time and there's something personal about me that I'd like you to know." Or, "I want you to know that I'm a lesbian." Or even just, "I have a girlfriend." No need to spill your guts or make a tortured declaration. The more confident and together you sound, the more likely you'll get a positive response.

This piece is adapted from "Steven Petrow's Complete Gay & Lesbian Manners," by Steven Petrow.