Opinion: Greenwich Names Day changed my life. Banning it would be a disservice to youth

Lily Olsen photographed two models for this artwork.

Lily Olsen photographed two models for this artwork.

Lily Olsen
A mic is the only thing that stands between the audience and its prey.

A mic is the only thing that stands between the audience and its prey.

Sean_Warren/Getty Images

I walked into the Greenwich High School auditorium for an anti-bullying assembly the way that any 14-year-old would, with my eyes rolling back into my head. At least I got a break from geometry class.

Names Day’s reputation preceded itself, but none of the older kids offered more than a vague idea of what it actually was.

“Sometimes people even come out as gay,” my friend’s older sister said to a shocked group of girls, myself included. I pictured the film “Carrie”: a girl on stage covered in pig’s blood. Who would risk coming out on Names Day?

I had only just realized I might be a lesbian over the summer and hoped entering high school and meeting new boys would help rid me of those intrusive thoughts. But, no. I scrambled to hide my secret, so I made it a joke.

My best friend Hannah and I loved to play pranks on other girls in our group. One day, I started playfully pestering our friend “Emily.” I would annoy her by trying to hug her, and she would respond, “What are you, a lesbian!?”

And so the joke began that I was a lesbian. I was like a comedian with a bit. I didn’t have a crush on Emily, but there were days where I’d notice another pretty girl in my class, and feel butterflies.

Because the “Lily is a Lesbian” joke was going strong, I was able to test the waters of how being gay would be received by friends.

“What would you guys do if I actually was a lesbian?”

“That would be so disgusting.”

“I wouldn’t change my clothes around you.”

I had my answer.

I formulated my coming out plan: After we graduated high school and I was leaving for college, I would say, “Bye, I’m gay!” And that would be that. I could wait four years. No problem.

But lying to myself had become difficult. I spent months of my eighth-grade year and the summer going into high school terrified, consuming gay media to make sure I actually felt this way. Lesbianism seemed synonymous with being ugly, sinful, even predatory. I didn’t want to be any of those things. Parents would say kids our age were way too young to know.

Then came Names Day.

My class of more than 600 students filed into the assembly room with the freshman year staff. The head presenter led a keynote speech with graphics and statistics about bullying, guidance on how to handle difficult social scenarios, and videos of teens sharing experiences kids my age just weren’t discussing with one another. We saw kids share about parents divorcing, issues with body image, sexual orientation, self-harm being bullied for their religious beliefs, race, gender, disabilities, and more.

Though we were just 14, we were old enough to have faced at least one of those real-world struggles our parents tried to shield us from. And we weren’t alone. That is what Names Day is designed to ignite: the conversations we felt too afraid to have.

We were captivated, and it only intensified as the keynote concluded and the next phase began. This part still blows my mind.

Two microphone stands were set up in the aisle on both sides of the auditorium, and the presenter announced that this was our opportunity to speak about anything we wanted. We sat in silence. Then, we heard small feet walking up one of the aisles toward the mic.

Christian Meskers was a student who’d been discriminated against incessantly, and he walked up with an 8.5x11 paper of his speech in hand. My earliest memory of Christian being harassed for seeming gay was when we were 10 years old on the playground of Old Greenwich Elementary School, and even by then he was rolling his eyes, having heard words such as “faggot” and “queer” hundreds of times before. But now, four years later, he told us he was done. He didn’t come out as gay in that speech – he wouldn’t for a couple more years – but he showed people that the bullying would never impede on his success. He ripped up the paper after he finished his speech and people cheered. No one ever bothered him again.

Other students began to approach the front.

One girl revealed she was called fat so often she began to starve herself. People apologized to her. Another kid said he watched a friend get bullied so badly, and he couldn’t get over the guilt that he didn’t do anything to stop it. Three boys went up together to apologize for bullying other kids in the past. It was a group therapy session of 600 peers, and whoever wanted to speak could do so in a healthy forum.

I felt my pulse in my neck.

I looked down at my checkered Vans as they walked down the aisle toward the mic, and I stood with my friend in line. She hugged me.

I watched as she finished up telling more than 600 students how she was tired of people making fun of her. When she stepped away, all I saw was the mic and a dark sea of peers.

“Hi. I’m Lily”

And then I began. I told the story of how I was jokingly a “Lesbian” with my close friend group, but that people outside the group called me a lesbian to get in on the joke. How I’d watched as my classmates made bets on who they thought would come out of the closet on Names Day, waiting to bully them. I told them I’d struggled with my own thoughts. That I too, was tired.

“I’m gay.”

I couldn’t believe it came out of my mouth.

Up until then, no one knew. Not a single friend, parent or teacher. Suddenly, everyone knew at once.

The auditorium erupted in cheers. I couldn’t believe it. I didn’t know most of these kids, and almost everyone I did know had some sort of disgust, or some judgment toward gay and transgender people. Why would they cheer?

I looked up at my best friend Hannah as she mouthed the words, “I love you” again and again.

More than 200 hugs later from kids I didn’t know, and staff who told me it’d be OK, I quickly saw the benefit of coming out on Names Day. Rather than my secret becoming a creeping rumor, gnawing at me day in and day out, everyone now knew without question.

The events that followed were coming out to my parents, who told me they loved me no matter what, and finding my place in high school as a regular student. I got to have the typical teen life: friends, crushes, breakups, but living way more authentically than I ever had.

Other kids messaged and spoke with me, confiding about their own questions of their sexuality. They told me they felt less lonely, less uncomfortable because I had shown them being gay and happy was possible.

Names Day launched me into a different kind of life right away, and its effects still last as I approach 30. Here’s how:

I started an LGBTQ+ blog in sophomore year of high school where I amassed tens of thousands of followers. It became a photographic journal where I shared images of queer folks and fielded hundreds of questions from people each week. People of all different ages, countries and backgrounds seeking advice, and messages of praise for showing my own ability to live happily out of the closet. My confidence skyrocketed and my fears lessened.

I began to photograph other LGBTQ+ women, and grew my photography into a lucrative business, having my work featured in art shows, campaigns for large fashion houses, and I continue to win awards for my work on this subject.

The interest in the fashion industry to feature models of all sexualities and genders led me to sign with Ford Models, where I walked the runway for Balenciaga for Paris Fashion Week, was photographed by Patrick Demarchelier for British Vogue, and starred in campaigns for Rihanna’s Fenty Beauty, Anne Klein and more.

I now have a TikTok with more than 2.5 million likes on my videos, where I create humorous content about LGBTQ+ life. Younger followers comment that they’ve found inspiration and comfort in the content. Folks who are my age remember my old blog and have shared how it helped them.

For me, the opportunity to be open about a tough subject fostered a lifetime of connection, confidence and leadership.

I think parents so deeply want to protect their children from the intense struggles of the real world, wishing they wouldn’t grow up so fast. But at 14, your kids have already encountered or witnessed real life conflicts you want to shield them from. Opening the door to discussing their experiences as teens will help them learn that there’s a path from suffering and conflict that leads to understanding, connection, solutions, and peace. If we don’t give them that opportunity, we may actually be leading Greenwich youth to silence and despair.

Parents go above and beyond to be there for their children. But to do great things in the world, or even just to enjoy life, kids need to learn tools to solve conflicts with respect, to foster trust with peers, learn good sportsmanship, and to hold space for differences. Names Day shows students that Greenwich High School is not just a place to get good grades and prepare for college, but to develop emotional intelligence, and learn how to treat each other. The purpose is not to end conversations with parents, but to help make the conversations that happen away from parents (and they do: just look at your family phone bill) as healthy as possible.

Names Day laid a foundation that my peers still value to this day.

And at the very least, we got a break from geometry class.

Artist Lily Olsen is a member of the Greenwich High School Class of 2011. lilyolsen.com