Miss Missouri Is The First Openly Gay Miss America Contestant

The annual Miss America competition celebrates women's beauty, talent, and dedication to contestants' chosen social causes. In Erin O'Flaherty's case, her platform focuses on LGBT youth and reflects her life's journey, because as Miss Missouri, she's the first openly gay Miss America contestant ever. And while the 23-year-old is proud to represent an oftentimes marginalized demographic on such a high-profile stage on the final, televised night of the event Sept. 11, what she really hopes is that her inclusion in the pageant will embolden others to embrace their identities.

O'Flaherty earned her crown as Miss Missouri back in June, but she came out as a lesbian years before that, at age 18. "My family was absolutely nothing but supportive, and I knew that when I decided to come out and when I was ready, it would be that way," she told USA Today. "So my coming out was actually much easier than millions of people's."

Even though O'Flaherty's coming out process was a relatively angst-free one, she recognizes that that is certainly not the case for all people who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender. That, coupled with the fact that she lost a close friend to suicide when she was just 13, is why she has adopted the promotion of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention as well as The Trevor Project, which emphasizes LGBT youth in its own suicide prevention efforts, as her official pageant causes.

Those are truly noble, worthy, and essential organizations, and ones to which O'Flaherty no doubt has a wealth of firsthand knowledge and innovative ideas to contribute. But just the image of her unabashedly flaunting all parts of herself — and not even considering the option of hiding her sexuality — will serve as a shining beacon for people struggling to accept some aspect of themselves. At least, that's the principle that inspired the #GiveElsaAGirlFriend hashtag campaign that urged Disney to portray the leading lady in its wildly popular film Frozen as a lesbian in a sequel. It's the reason why Christian rock singer Trey Pearson's recent public admission that he's gay could make a huge difference for gay people who grew up in conservative environments.

Gay youth are four times more likely to commit attempt suicide than their straight counterparts, according to The Trevor Project. So, it was incredibly satisfying and encouraging to see O'Flaherty totally rock it throughout the Miss Missouri competition, and it will be just as exciting to watch her perform "The Mad Hatter" from the musical Wonderland at the Miss America competition.

O'Flaherty embodies a confidence in herself and optimism about the way that people will react to her and view her, because she knows she's awesome. In an Instagram post showing her decked out in her sash just before an interview on CNN, she reflected on her ascension to Miss Missouri and the road to Miss America — and how she's fighting not just for herself but for "another little girl who is coming into her own."

The full post reads:

Just before my interview on CNN, I paused to capture this moment. Since my crowning, I've received national attention with reactions to my presence that have ranged from vicious and hateful to supportive and joyous. At times, I've wanted nothing more than to protect myself and hide from the attention. But what change would that inspire? I want to put myself on the line. I'll take every bit of hate if it means that another little girl who is coming into her own doesn't have to. I'll have the tough conversations until I'm blue in the face - all if it means opening minds and beginning the conversation of equality. Leadership is not always just showing up or pitching in. Sometimes it's being on the front lines of a movement you're scared to death of fighting. #missamerica#missmissouri #leadership

For its part, the Miss America Organization is excited to have its first openly gay competitor in the running got the national crown. "Through every major milestone of our nation’s evolution, Miss America has provided a voice for women from all walks of life," organization COO Josh Randle said, according to Forbes.

ABC will broadcast the Miss America Pageant at 9 p.m. Sunday, September 11.