- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 6, 2016

On Sunday, Erin O’Flaherty could become the second Miss Missouri to ever win the Miss America crown. The Show Me State resident could also happen to be the first openly lesbian winner in the beauty pageant’s 95-year history.

“I knew going in that I had the opportunity to make history. Now I get to be more visible to the community and meet more people,” Miss O’Flaherty told The Associated Press in a recent interview.

Although Miss O’Flaherty is the first out-of-the-closet gay contestant in the Miss America pageant, “Lesbians have been more visible in pageants lately,” the AP noted in a story on Tuesday. “Djuan Trent competed in the Miss America pageant as Miss Kentucky in 2011, when she finished in the top 10. She came out as a lesbian in 2014.”

Shortly after she secured the Miss Missouri crown in June, Cosmopolitan magazine asked Miss O’Flaherty if he had “been hard to live in states like Missouri, South Carolina, and Florida where they are generally more conservative than others” and if she had “felt any pressure to stay closeted for pageants or in your personal life?”

“I would never, ever let anybody pressure me to do that,” Miss O’Flaherty replied. “This is who I am and the judges chose me! I’m not the kind of person who is going to give in to that pressure, but I actually haven’t felt that much pressure.”

“People have been very accepting so, as much as it might be scary for me to come into a conservative state and to be who I am, at the same time, people have greeted me with open arms,” added the 23-year-old dress-shop owner who grew up in Florence, South Carolina. “It’s really shown me that, here in Missouri, our politics doesn’t necessarily match our people all of the time. I know that there might be people who probably really don’t agree with it, but I’m just going to try to be the best Miss Missouri that I can be and show that [my sexuality] is only one part of me. My service to the state is what’s going to make me stand out to them.”

Inspired both by the tragic loss of a close friend to suicide at age 13 and her concern over suicide rates among young gay people, Miss O’Flaherty would devote her tenure as Miss America to suicide prevention.

“I didn’t choose to be the first [openly gay Miss Missouri]; I just am,” she told the River Front Times, a St. Louis newspaper, in a June interview.  “What I’m going to try to do this year is open up people’s eyes and minds a little bit.”

The Miss America contest will air live from Atlantic City, New Jersey, on ABC at 9 p.m. Eastern on Sunday, Sept. 11.

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