The Miss America Pageant, like fashion week, isn’t praised for its diversity. For years, the competition has been criticized for reinforcing patriarchal ideals, perpetuating exclusive beauty standards and encouraging unhealthy perceptions of body image. When you think of Miss America, she’s usually blonde and thin, with big boobs and even bigger hair—and she’s probably from Texas. But this year, Miss Missouri is breaking the mold.
Not only is 23-year-old Erin O’Flaherty a brunette, she will also be the first openly gay contestant to compete for the Miss America title. Though there have been lesbian contestants in the past, O’Flaherty will be the first woman to come out before winning the crown—Djuan Trent, who competed in the pageant as Miss Kentucky in 2011, came out in 2014, as did two-time Miss Spain winner, Patricia Yunera, after being runner up in the 2013 Miss Universe pageant.
“Behind the scenes, we’ve been well-represented,” said O’Flaherty in an interview with the Associated Press, “but I’m the first openly gay title holder, so I’m very excited. I knew going in that I had the opportunity to make history.” She added, “Now I get to be more visible to the community and meet more people.”
Crowned Miss Missouri earlier this summer, O’Flaherty, whose talent is singing, will focus her platform on suicide prevention, an issue she says is particularly important for LGBTQ youth. As Miss Missouri, and as potentially the next Miss America, she hopes to be a voice for the LGBTQ community, though she doesn’t want her sexuality to define her campaign.
“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,” she said. “My service to the state is what’s going to make me stand out to them.”