'I was able to break down that door and tell people, 'Hey, we are not just sexual beings. We are actual human beings who want to better ourselves.''
Justine Lindsay just made National Football League history. The 29-year-old recently became the first openly trans NFL cheerleader after she was selected as the newest member of the Carolina Panthers' cheerleading squad, the TopCats. In a March Instagram post announcing that she was joining the squad, Lindsay came out as trans to her new teammates and 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," she captioned a photo of her smiling in her cheerleading uniform.
Representation matters: Black, trans, and rocking a bald head in an occupation that has long reproduced a specific kind of white femininity (as discussed in our recent JSM research) https://t.co/nLnm56s3TK— Lauren Hindman (@laurenhindman) June 5, 2022
Speaking to BuzzFeed News about coming out through the social media announcement, Lindsay admitted that she was very scared. "There's just some things you can't post," she said. She revealed that even her best friend—whom she calls a sister—didn't know she was trans. She'd kept it a secret from everyone except her family. "I just felt like when I posted it, whatever reaction I get from everyone, it does not matter," Lindsay recalled. "And then my phone started blowing up." Although there is no official record of NFL cheerleaders throughout history, Lindsay is believed to be the first trans person to be an NFL cheerleader.
Addressing her history-making achievement, Lindsay said she's happy to "break down that door" for future trans athletes. Meanwhile, Chandalae Lanouette—the TopCats' director—explained that while Lindsay had noted on her application that she was transgender, the decision to welcome her to the squared was solely based on her talent. "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.
Although NFL cheerleading squads have recently begun accepting men on the rosters, there has been little to no progress for the women. Most squads still gravitate toward the cookie-cutter "all-American" look where the women are expected to look like pinup models and perform like athletes. Even amid the handful of Black women who are NFL cheerleaders, very few wear their hair natural. Lindsay revealed that while she was preparing to try out for the TopCats, she noticed while watching "Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders: Making the Team"—a CMT reality show that follows women auditioning for the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders—that their appearance played a huge role in whether they were selected or not.
Therefore, she was relieved when her coach told her she could keep her bald head as she is happy to "inspire other young girls who may be insecure rocking their bald look." When they aren't performing on the sidelines, cheerleaders represent their team at everything from community events to fundraisers to business conferences. "This is big," said Lindsay, adding that she is proud to knock down any barriers as a Black trans woman. "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."
Sam Ames, the director of advocacy and government affairs at The Trevor Project, said that the visibility of the transgender community is "critical" in a statement addressing Lindsay becoming the first openly trans NFL cheerleader. "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.'"