The first openly transgender cheerleader in the National Football League (NFL) will make her debut in the 2022 season starting in September.
Justine Lindsay, a 29-year-old black trans woman, will cheer for the Carolina Panthers “TopCats,” becoming the NFL’s first openly trans cheerleader, BuzzFeed News first reported.
Although there is no official record for NFL cheerleaders hired throughout league history, Lindsay appears to be the first openly transgender person.
Lindsay announced her hiring in a March Instagram post, thanking the TopCats team, the other dancers who supported her and their manager, Chandalae Lanouette: “It’s a moment I will never forget and I can’t wait to show you everything this girl has to offer. Thank you [Topcats] a dream come true.”
In her first interview since joining the team, Lindsay spoke to BuzzFeed about the anxiety she felt when posting on social media about her historic hiring. “I was so scared,” she said. “There are just some things you can’t post.”
Lindsay’s announcement has since gone viral, with fans commenting on messages of support and congratulations to the new cheerleader.
But, Lindsay has had to deal with transphobia, the harassment she spoke about in a recent Instagram post: “Thank you to all my haters who think I’m bringing down the organization, clearly I’m not.” writes Lindsay on Monday.
She continued, “The Carolina Panthers organization is great, an organization that supports all people who are white, black, yellow trans, straight, etc. at the end of the day myself and the other 29 members [Topcats] made the team fair and square.
Lanouette and the Panthers also pointed out that Lindsay made the team thanks to her dancing skills.
“My goal is to create a team of individuals who are absolute fire on the pitch but who are incredible human beings in the locker room, good friends, good people, and at the end of the day you have to first walk through the door to get to this place,” Lanouette told BuzzFeed.
“TopCats members are hired based on their qualifications and ability,” the Panthers said in a statement shared with NPR. “Our organization is an equal opportunity employer and does not discriminate on the basis of age, race, religion, color, disability, gender, sexual orientation or gender. We wish all of the TopCats, including Justine Lindsay, an incredible season.
Lindsay’s recent hire comes as conservative lawmakers in several states pass legislation that criminalizes trans athletes.
On Wednesday, Republican lawmakers in Ohio passed legislation in the House that would ban trans girls and women from participating in high school and college athletics. The bill would also make a genital inspection “verification process” mandatory for athletes suspected of being trans.
In March, Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds signed a bill banning trans girls and women from participating in high school and college sports. Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards allowed a similar legislative ban to become law by not vetoing it although she did not sign it either.
Black cheerleaders also remain a minority in the NFL, with Eurocentric beauty expectations, like straighter hair, remaining the norm for dancers.
Lindsay, however, will be allowed to keep her look bald, which she adds is another opportunity “to inspire other young girls who may not be sure about rocking their bald look.”
Overall, despite the hurdles the league still faces, Lindsay said she’s excited to lead the way as a black trans woman: “It’s huge,” she told BuzzFeed. “I think more people need to see this. It’s not because I want recognition. It’s just to shed some light on what’s going on in the world.
Other NFL teams have made progress in diversifying their cheerleading roasters. In March 2018, the Los Angeles Rams hired their first two male cheerleaders.
That same year, the New Orleans Saints “Saintsations” hired their first-ever male dancer.