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September 9, 2016 10:46 AM EDT

Miss Missouri Erin O’Flaherty believes this is an important moment for her to be competing in the Miss America pageant as its first openly gay contestant.

In the wake of the June shooting in Orlando at Pulse, a gay nightclub, O’Flaherty, 23, said it’s “awesome and overwhelming” to represent the LGBT community in such a public way.

“It’s about time we had a gay Miss America contestant,” she said on Thursday, in between preliminary rounds of the Miss America competition, which crowns its winner on Sunday.

O’Flaherty was initially not open about her sexuality when she started competing in pageants while attending the University of Central Florida. But as she began focusing on suicide prevention work, particularly among LGBT teenagers, she realized she had to officially come out. As part of her platform, she promotes the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention as well as the Trevor Project, a suicide prevention hotline for LGBT youth, who are four times more likely to attempt suicide than straight youth.

“I really want to be the person that opens up the conversation, bringing attention to this issue,” she said. “So many people are affected by suicide and talking about it is what can prevent suicide.”

She hopes appearing onstage in the Miss America competition will open doors for further representation in the future. Just this week, she said she has received hundreds of messages from young girls and others in the LGBT community sharing their stories.

“On stage every night, you can lose the purpose of why we’re here,” she said. “Coming home to those messages reminds me I am here for a purpose, and doing something bigger than myself. I’m proud to be visible in this capacity.”

Miss America 2017 airs live from Atlantic City on Sunday at 9 p.m. ET on ABC.

Write to Mahita Gajanan at

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