For Miss Missouri Erin O'Flaherty, the first openly gay contestant in the Miss America pageant, coming out at 18 was a difficult yet essential choice.
"It was really hard. But ultimately I knew I had to do it," she told USA TODAY about her coming-out journey in between preliminary competitions for Miss America, which crowns its winner Sunday night.
O'Flaherty, 23, knows her personal journey was easier than those of many other teenagers, partially thanks to her support system at home.
"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 millions of people," she said.
"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."
Her own journey, coupled with the suicide of a close friend when she was 13, is why O'Flaherty has made suicide prevention her Miss USA platform. Specifically, she's focused on supporting LGBT teenagers, promoting the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention as well as the Trevor Project, a crisis intervention and suicide prevention hotline for at-risk youth.
"LGBT youth are up to eight times more likely to attempt suicide if they come from an unaccepting environment, so the work the Trevor Project is doing is really important."
O'Flaherty described the messages she's received from fans around the country thanking her and wishing her luck. And with 7 million viewers tuning into last year's broadcast, she'll get her chance during Sunday's competition to represent the LGBT community on the Miss America stage in front of a massive audience.
And in the event that O'Flaherty wins, she hopes her legacy will transcend her orientation and that by the end of her year "as Miss America, nobody's talking about my sexuality. They're talking about the important things I've done throughout my year."
"I really want people to know I'm not one-dimensional, I'll be an incredible Miss America, I'll promote (Miss America's partner organization) Children's Miracle Network, I'll promote suicide prevention. Whether I'm Miss America or not, I'll continue to do that."