Names Day Changed My Life: Why Opting Your Kids Out Would be a Disservice

Submitted by Lily Olsen, Greenwich High School Class of 2011

To the Editor:

I walked into the GHS 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, after I ended it with my very serious boyfriend of two weeks. I 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 the other girls in our group. One day, like a classic younger sister, 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 having a bit. I didn’t have a crush on “Emily.” It wasn’t even a thought. But there were days where I’d notice another pretty girl in my class, or in the hallway, 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 my friend group.

“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 already become difficult. I spent months of my 8th grade year and the summer before going into high school terrified, consuming a lot of gay media to make sure I actually felt this way. What would a gay life even look like? Lesbianism seemed synonymous with being manly, 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 entire class of over 600 students filed into the auditorium with the freshman year staff. This was before the first iPhone came out, so no one was distracted outside of chatting with friends. The head presenter led what was essentially a keynote speech with graphics and statistics about bullying, guidance on how to handle difficult social scenarios, and videos of teens telling stories about standing up for others, sharing about 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, sexual assault, being bullied for their religious beliefs, disabilities, and more.

We really started paying attention. Even 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 down one of the aisles toward the mic.

Christian Meskers was a student who’d been discriminated against incessantly, and he walked up with an 8.5×11 paper of his speech in hand. Christian was sick and tired, and we all knew why. 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 the words “F****t” and “Queer” hundreds of times before. But now, four years later, he was done. He was pissed off.

He’d been made fun of relentlessly, and people he considered friends wouldn’t always stand up for him. 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 successful life. He ripped up the paper after he finished his speech and people cheered.

After that, no one ever bothered him again.

Other students began to approach the front.

One girl talked about how she was called fat so often she began to starve herself.

People apologized to her after. 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. His friend forgave him. 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 and optional forum.

I started to breathe a little quicker. I felt my pulse in my neck.

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

“What are you going to say?” My friend asked.

I watched as she finished up telling 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. I told them how I’d watched as my classmates made bets on which kids they thought would come out of the closet on Names Day, waiting to bully them. I told them the story of how I’d struggled with my own thoughts. That I too, was tired.

“I’m gay.”

I couldn’t even believe it came out of my mouth. Up until then, I’d told myself I was bisexual, trying to hold onto a semblance of normalcy.

Up until then, no one knew. My parents didn’t know. My friends didn’t know. Not a single person or teacher. And now 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 hatred for gay people. Some disgust, or some judgment. Why would people cheer?

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

I got over 200 hugs that day. Kids I knew, and most who I didn’t. Staff who told me it’d be okay.

As I got on the bus to go home, an older kid who wasn’t at the assembly asked in front of everyone, “Did you actually come out as gay?”

I did. And for the first time, I saw the benefit of coming out on Names Day. Rather than my secret becoming a slowly creeping rumor, gnawing at me day in and day out, being whispered about, everyone now knew without question. They could see firsthand the support I received.

The events that followed were coming out to my parents, who told me they loved me no matter what. Finding my place in the high school as a regular student, and also one of the presidents of the Gay Straight Alliance. I got to have a regular teen life: friends, crushes, breakups, changing my taste in fashion, living way more authentically than I ever had. Finding myself.

Other kids messaged and spoke with me, confiding in me about their own questions of their sexuality. Most of those kids never came out in high school, but told me they felt less lonely, less uncomfortable because I had shown them being gay and being happy about it 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 people, self portraits, fashion, and fielded hundreds of questions from people a 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 during 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 over 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 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 and I still value to this day.

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

Lily Olsen, GHS Class of 2011