by Joel Barrett
Miss Missouri Erin O’Flaherty made history this year when she competed for the crown of Miss America 2017 on Sunday, Sept. 11. Although she did not win the crown, she was certainly one of the most talked about contestants in the pageant. While there have been other gay contestants, the 23-year-old Miss Missouri is the first to be publicly out prior to the pageant.
Erin, who came out at the age of 18, talked about her experience in a recent interview with USA Today.
“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. So my coming out was actually much easier than it is for millions of people,” O’Flaherty said.
She also admits that no matter how supportive one’s family is, the journey to authenticity is still a challenge.
“It was really hard. But ultimately I knew I had to do it. In a way, I wish it would’ve been harder, because some people have it so bad, and I never really had a terrible coming-out. It was very easy for me because of the people I was surrounded by,” she said.
October 11 is National Coming Out day. The Human Rights Commission states: “Coming out and living openly aren’t something you do once, or even for one year. It’s a journey that we make every single day of our lives. Every coming-out experience is unique and must be navigated in the way most comfortable for the individual. Whether it’s for the first time ever or the first time today, coming out can be an arduous journey. It is also a brave decision to live openly and authentically.”
I asked Erin what advice she has for those who may be contemplating stepping out of the closet.
“It’s OK to wait until you are ready. I knew who I was for a few years before coming out, and that’s OK. I needed time to discover myself before others got the chance to,” O’Flaherty said.
Her message to closeted LGBT people is one of encouragement and empowerment.
“It is the most freeing thing you can do for yourself. Allowing yourself to love and live authentically is a beautiful thing, and I hope that no matter what, those who are still in the closet know that there are so many people who love and support them,” she said.
O’Flaherty told Cosmopolitan.com that she struggled with her sexuality growing up as a self-described “feminine girl.”
“Knowing I might be gay but also being very feminine was kind of confusing for me,” she explained, “because I didn’t fit into the stereotypical category I had in my head for a woman in the LGBT community. It took many years of struggle to figure out who I was.”
Erin now embraces her sexual orientation and embraced her new “role model” status.
“It’s awesome and overwhelming to represent the LGBT community in such a public way,” she told Time Magazine.
Her time in the national spotlight has resulted in her regularly receiving hundreds of messages from young girls and others in the LGBTQ community. The sharing of their stories keeps her focused.
“On stage every night, you can lose the purpose of why we’re here,” she said. “Coming home to those messages reminds me I am here for a purpose and doing something bigger than myself. I’m proud to be visible in this capacity.”
O’Flaherty’s platform of Suicide Prevention was inspired by her own life experiences and the loss of a close friend when she was 13. Today she volunteers with the Trevor Project, which is the leading national organization providing crisis intervention and suicide prevention services to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning young people ages 13 to 24.
In her interview with Cosmopolitan magazine, she explained, “LGBT youth are actually eight times more likely to try to commit suicide compared to their straight peers. That’s really what the Trevor Project, an organization I do work with, is all about. They act as a resource for LGBT youth; so far, this year, there have been almost 11,000 calls, texts, and chats into their hotline. That’s really staggering.”
According to a recent CDC survey of high school students, 43 percent of lesbian, gay and bisexual youth seriously considered suicide during the previous 12 months, compared to 15 percent of heterosexual youth. Almost 30 percent had tried to take their own lives, compared to just 6 percent of heterosexual youth.
I asked Erin what she would say to those struggling with suicidal thoughts.
“I would tell that person that there are so many people who love and support them, and there are so many options other than ending his/her life. Coming out is hard—but taking your life is not the answer. You are valued. You are loved. There IS a place for you in this world,” she said.
She urges LGBT youth to reach out and talk to someone they trust.
Erin’s sexual orientation has been the focus of nearly every interview. I asked her how she felt about that spotlight.
“While I do think the attention purely on my sexuality can be invasive at times, it’s important for the LGBT community and for femme visibility. I have accepted that this is what the media is going to focus on, and instead I’m going to focus on the positive impact this could have on the LGBT community and LGBT youth. It’s also relevant to my personal platform of suicide prevention and the work I do,” she said.
Being lesbian is not what defines Erin. That’s only one small part of what makes her a fascinating Miss Missouri. In her promotional video for Miss America, she reveals an unlikely “fun fact” about herself: She was raised on a farm in South Carolina and is trained in livestock judging. Her childhood included participation in 4-H and summers at livestock judging camp where she and other children learned to evaluate the build, condition and appearance of farm animals.
Unlike many contestants, Erin didn’t compete in her first pageant until her freshman year of college in Florida when she also came out. She viewed the pageant world as a way to build a social network and make friends. After receiving her degree, she moved to Chesterfield, Mo., where she currently owns a boutique. In June, she was crowned Miss Missouri, qualifying her to compete for the title of Miss America 2017.
O’Flaherty is an accomplished entertainer. On national TV she boldly performed “The Mad Hatter” from the musical “Wonderland.”
Her tip for success?
“Bloom where you’re planted,” she said.
There is no question that O’Flaherty is blooming where she has been planted in history as the first gay Miss America contestant. While the ultimate title slipped from her grasp, the title of “history maker” is forever hers. She joins an impressive list of history-making contestants like Vanessa Williams, the first African-American winner and Heather Whitestone. the first deaf Miss America.
“I hope others will learn that you can be successful no matter who or what you are. I want LGBT youth to look up to me and realize that message is absolutely true. Period!”