In a league not known for its progressiveness, Justine Lindsay just made NFL history.
The 29-year-old is the newest member of the Topcats, the Carolina Panthers' cheerleading squad — and she’s the first openly trans NFL cheerleader.
In an Instagram post announcing that she was joining the Topcats, Lindsay came out as trans to her new teammates — and also to the rest of her community.
“Cats Out the Bag you are looking at the newest member of the Carolina Panthers TopCats Cheerleader’s @topcats as the first Transgender female,” read the caption, which was next to a photo of her smiling in her cheerleading uniform.
“I was so scared,” Lindsay told BuzzFeed News about posting the Instagram in her first interview since joining the team. “There’s just some things you can’t post.”
Even Lindsay’s best friend, whom she calls a sister, didn't know she was trans. It was a secret she’d kept from everyone except her family.
“I just felt like when I posted it, whatever reaction I get from everyone, it does not matter,” Lindsay said. “And then my phone started blowing up.”
There’s no official record of NFL cheerleaders throughout history, but it seems Lindsay is the first trans person to be an NFL cheerleader, and she said she’s happy to “break down that door” for future trans athletes.
Chandalae Lanouette, the Topcats' director, said Lindsay had noted on her application that she was transgender, but her talent, not her history-making, is what landed her on the squad.
“My goal is to create a team of individuals that are absolute fire on the field but are incredible human beings in the locker room, good friends, good people, and at the end of the day, you have to walk through the door first to get to that spot,” Lanouette said.
While NFL cheerleading squads have recently started to allow men on the rosters, there’s been little progression for the women. Most squads still gravitate toward an “all-American” look (read: white, thin, European standards of beauty), where the women are expected to perform like athletes but look like pinup models.
Black women make up a minority of NFL cheerleaders, and even fewer wear their hair natural. Lindsay said that while she was preparing to try out for the Topcats, she watched Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders: Making the Team, a CMT reality show that follows women auditioning for the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders, and noticed that their appearance was a big factor in whether they were selected.
Lindsay was relieved when her coach told her she could keep her bald head, and said she is happy to “inspire other young girls who may be insecure rocking their bald look.”
When cheerleaders aren’t performing on the sidelines, they are representing the team at everything from community events to fundraisers to business conferences. Lindsay said she’s proud to knock down any barriers as a Black trans woman.
“This is big,” she said. “I think more people need to see this. It’s not because I want recognition. It’s just to shed light on what’s going on in the world.”
According to the Trevor Project, fewer than 1 in 3 people know someone who is transgender. Sam Ames, the director of advocacy and government affairs at the suicide-prevention organization for LGBTQ youth, said in a statement to BuzzFeed News that visibility of the transgender community is “critical.”
“Our research shows that LGBTQ youth report that seeing LGBTQ representation by celebrities and athletes made them feel good about being LGBTQ,” Ames said. “Especially in a place like the NFL, which occupies such a powerful position in our culture, the story of a transgender cheerleader can inspire so much more than victory. She can give young people watching a dream to hold on to and a future to hold out for.”
“I’m happy because I was able to break down that door and tell people, ‘Hey, we are not just sexual beings,’” Lindsay said. “‘We are actual human beings who want to better ourselves.’ I felt like, Why not tell the world: 'Hey, listen, this is a great accomplishment.'”