Erin O’Flaherty made history this past summer as the first openly LGBTQ contestant to compete for the title of Miss America. Her platform, suicide prevention, has been a passion of hers for several years and she has used her prominence as Miss Missouri to raise awareness about this critical issue, particularly among LGBTQ youth.
O’Flaherty, who was crowned Miss Missouri in June, came out as a lesbian a few years ago to a supportive family, but recognizes that acceptance is unfortunately something not everyone experiences during their coming out journey. She works with organizations such as The Trevor Project and the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP) to help those who are contemplating suicide and encourages people to focus on mental health and self-care.
HRC had the opportunity to talk with O’Flaherty about her work with these important organizations and what she hopes to achieve as a role model for LGBTQ youth. Read our exclusive one-on-one with O’Flaherty below:
Tell us about your commitment to suicide prevention and how you got involved with such an important issue.
My initial commitment to suicide prevention began after I lost one of my best friends to suicide when I was 13. As I navigated the grieving process, I learned that there were warning signs and risk factors associated with an individual contemplating suicide. I wondered what might have been if I had been educated beforehand. Would I have been able to save my friend
Losing a loved one to suicide is so tragic – there is not much closure, if any. It became therapeutic for me to spread the word that suicide can be prevented. Initially, I became familiar with the QPR Institute and the AFSP. I learned so much from the educational resources that they provide. As I struggled with my own sexuality and eventually coming out, I found my passion in The Trevor Project – suicide prevention dedicated to the LGBT community.
What type of work do you do with the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and The Trevor Project? Do you focus on both mental health as well as bullying?
AFSP and The Trevor Project are allies in much of what they do. While I work very closely with The Trevor Project as an ambassador, so to speak, some of the national educational materials and research are done through the AFSP. The mission of each organization, ultimately, is to prevent suicide. As Miss Missouri, I travel my state speaking to schools, clubs, and organizations about the lifesaving resources that The Trevor Project offers and I offer my own story to audiences along the way. Much of that focuses on mental health and self-care and my personal struggles with both. I want to connect with those I meet on a personal level and give them hope.
Since the presidential election, The Trevor Project has experienced a surge in calls, texts, and chats. This is coupled with the seasonal surge that often comes with the holidays and LGBTQ youth feeling alone. Many are feeling very scared about what their future might look like right now, and through the The Trevor Project, we are able to provide lifesaving resources to help mitigate those fears. It’s my job to spread awareness about these important resources so that others are enabled to act and help, too.
You came out as a lesbian a few years ago. How did you make the brave decision and how has that changed your life since?
My coming out was very slow, in my mind. I never had an “aha!” moment that propelled me out of the closet. It took living through my teenage years filled with confusion and struggle to slowly realize and admit to myself that I was gay. Once I accepted it for myself, my coming out just felt natural from there. There is no denying that coming out is nothing less than awkward. For some, it is even filled with hatred and bullying from peers and, in some cases, strangers. However, I can’t imagine living my life without being open about who I am. It has changed my life and outlook for the better in every way. It is the hardest thing I’ve ever done, but it was by far the most rewarding, as well.
As the first openly LGBTQ contestant to compete in Miss America, what did that mean to you in terms of LGBTQ visibility?
I can’t put into words what it meant to me! I grew up as a very feminine girl who struggled with her sexuality – if I had been able to witness someone competing for Miss America that I perceived to be “like me,” I wonder if it wouldn’t have taken me so long to accept that it is 100 percent possible to be both feminine and lesbian. Being the first means I might get to serve as that reference point for someone else, and that means the world to me. All I want out of this is to be a positive influence in someone else’s life and hopefully help someone through what can be a scary time in life.
How does it feel to be a role model and example for LGBTQ youth to be proud of who they are?
I can only hope that I’m setting that example! It’s not easy to be subjected to so many opinions so frequently and in the public eye, but it certainly makes it easier knowing there are so many people who do support me and do see me as someone who can set a good example for others. I’ve had to learn self-love and self-care, but at the end of the day I truly am proud to be who I am and I wouldn’t change it even if I could. Now more than ever, it will be important for the LGBTQ community to come together as a collective and be proud of who we are.
What is the most valuable thing you have experienced or learned since competing in Miss America?
The biggest, most abundantly clear message I have learned in life, both through Miss America and outside of the pageant world completely, is that it will never be possible to please absolutely everyone. All you can do is be yourself and tune out negativity. That will be more than enough for so many people that DO support and love you.
O’Flaherty will attend HRC Foundation’s fourth annual Time to THRIVE Conference, promoting safety, inclusion and well-being for LGBTQ youth. Register now for Time to THRIVE, which will be held from Friday, April 18 – Sunday, April 30, 2017 in Washington, D.C.