Bess Myerson became the first Jewish Miss America in 1945. In 1984, Vanessa Williams became the first African American to win the prestigious title (although she was famously asked to step down amid a nude photograph scandal). When Angela Perez Baraquio was crowned Miss America in 2001, she became the first Asian American to do so.
And now, in 2016, the beauty pageant has reached another milestone: Erin O’Flaherty will compete as the first openly gay contestant.
The moment is meaningful in more ways than one. Although Miss America likes to label itself an empowering scholarship program, the criterion still calls for mostly traditional, heterosexual ideals of beauty. And yet, as the world becomes increasingly tolerant of marriage equality and gender fluidity, such standards appear more and more antiquated. O’Flaherty, who was crowned Miss Missouri earlier this year, is a small step in the right direction for the Miss America legacy.
Most importantly, an openly lesbian contestant challenges what the Washington Post called “the pageant’s core male fantasy: Under the right dating circumstances, they might kiss you.”
The significance is not lost on O’Flaherty. While she embraces her role as a gay role model, she’s also passionate about suicide prevention (of which LGBT youth are at an increased risk, compared to their straight peers). Ultimately, O’Flaherty says she would prefer to be remembered for the causes she champions, and not simply her sexuality.
“I hope that by the end of the year, nobody will be focused on my sexuality,” she told the Washington Post. “I hope they remember me for how I did the job, and not for one quality about me.”
In an interview with the New York Times, she jokes, “I don’t introduce myself as Erin the lesbian, you know? I just exist.”