When Erin O’Flaherty’s name was called as the newest Miss Missouri, she was filled with joy, gratitude and pride as the first openly gay winner in the state pageant’s history.
“I just had so many emotions,” O’Flaherty, 23, tells PEOPLE. “I was thankful for all the support I had received, for my family for encouraging me. I couldn’t believe the next step would be Miss America. In that moment I knew I was making history, and that was an awesome feeling.”
On Sept. 11, O’Flaherty will make history again when she becomes the first openly gay competitor in Miss America history and vies for the 2017 crown, a representative from Miss America confirms to PEOPLE.
It was only five years ago that she got her start in pageants as a student at the University of Central Florida. She entered her first one at age 18, the same year that she came out as gay to her friends and family.
“I always had a feeling – I can’t describe it exactly – but every member of the LGBT community just knows that there’s something different about them,” she explains. “It’s very hard to accept yourself and to take that leap and come out openly to the world, because you want to accept it yourself before the world gets a chance to accept it. And my family, my coming out, they made it very easy for me.”
The decision to be openly gay in the pageant world was another tough one, but O’Flaherty says it was the only way to be true to herself.
“I certainly had my concerns, because it hadn’t happened before, but what I realized is there is no way that I would have been as successful as I had been if I were in the other version of myself,” she says. “So I knew that if this is something that I do, I was either going to put it out there, or not do it at all.”
“I don’t want to hide any part of myself, I am very proud to be gay, and I am proud that I am bringing visibility to the LGBT community. I never would’ve wanted to hide that.”
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And after just five days as Miss Missouri, O’Flaherty’s already feeling the love and support, and the possibility that her historic win could help others.
“I think there’s a huge potential to really make an impact, to inspire not only young women, but any young person who feels like they have a dream that might be a little out of their reach, or if they feel like they’re held back by fear,” she says. “My message is – don’t be paralyzed by your fear.”
O’Flaherty hopes to help more kids across Missouri and the U.S. while she holds the crown, by partnering with the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and the Trevor Project, which specifically helps LGBT youth.
“It’s really important for me to be involved with the Trevor Project, because it merges my passion for suicide prevention with my experience as a member of the LGBT community,” she says. “LGBT youth are up to eight times as likely to attempt suicide compared to their straight peers, so it’s really important for me to be involved in both of those organizations.”
Between her advocacy and the friendships she formed in the pageant community, O’Flaherty says deciding to compete is one of the best choices she’s made.
“It’s one thing I wouldn’t change for the world,” she says. “It’s enriched my life in so many ways.”
The Miss America pageant airs September 11 on ABC at 9:00pm ET/PT