Since its debut in 1921, Miss America has received its share of praise, and more often than not, criticism. Its lack of diversity and continued objectification of women has led many to view its existence with disdain.
Now, 95 years after its premiere, Miss America had its first openly gay contestant, Erin O’Flaherty, proving the pageant, though inarguably flawed, is slowly attempting to become inclusive.
In 1983, Vanessa Williams made history as the first African-American women to win the crown; though less than a year later, she resigned her title due to a scandal around nudes taken years prior to her pageantry.
In 2001, Angela Baraquio was crowned becoming the first Asian-American as well as the first Filipino American to win the pageant. In 2014, Nina Davuluri was the first contestant of Indian descent to win the crown.
O’Flaherty, while not successful in winning the pageant, did open the doors to a conversation that was previously absent.
“This is not just an issue of diversity but (of) saving lives,” O’Flaherty said in an interview with the Huffington Post. “LGBT youth are up to eight times more likely to attempt suicide as compared to their heterosexual peers if they come from an unaccepting environment. I hope that my presence can give others hope.”
O’Flaherty has adopted The Trevor Project and The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention as her platform and has heavily advocated the resources available for LGBT youth struggling with their identities.
Her presence also helped those who may have bigoted mindsets realize that the LGBT community does not strictly adhere to stereotypes. O’Flaherty was a feminine, southern, highly educated contestant who also happened to be gay.
Hopefully, her presence reshaped some of the intolerable mentalities often directed at the LGBT community.
After all, each instance of LGBT victimization, whether physical or verbal harassment or abuse, increases the likelihood of self-harming behavior by an average of 2.5 times, according to the American Journal of Public Health.
Miss America indubitably has many mountains left to climb before it can even attempt to claim complete inclusivity but at least it’s not completely opposed to change.
Until viewers can see an accurate representation of our country rather than a handful of minorities splashed amongst an overwhelmingly blonde, heterosexual group of white contestants there will continue to be backlash directed at the event.
The pageant is fighting to be recognized as the largest provider of scholarships in the world for women rather than a degrading beauty contest. And on one hand, they do technically award more money to women than any other group — even if the total sum is far less than what is claimed as exposed by a segment of John Oliver’s show in 2014.
Unfortunately, we live in a society where the best scholarship program requires contenders to parade around in bikinis and be capable of answering intricate questions in fewer than 20 seconds.
While it is regrettable the Miss America pageant is still a leading form of entertainment in this country, at least women of all sexual orientation are now being represented.
Breanne Williams is a senior majoring in mass communications.