The first openly transgender cheerleader in the National Football League will make her debut in the 2022 season, which begins in September.
Justine Lindsay, a 29-year-old black trans woman, will cheer on the Carolina Panthers “TopCats” and become the NFL’s first openly transgender cheerleader, BuzzFeed News first reported.
Although there is no official record for NFL cheerleaders hired throughout the league’s history, Lindsay appears to be the first openly transgender person.
Lindsay announced her hiring in a March Instagram post, thanking the TopCats team, other dancers who supported her and her director Chandalae Lanouette: “This is a moment I will never forget and I can’t wait to show you all what this girl has bring. Many Thanks [Topcats] a dream becomes true.”
In her first interview since joining the team, Lindsay spoke to BuzzFeed about the anxiety she felt when she posted on social media about her historic setting. “I was so scared,” she said. “There are just 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, a harassment she addressed in a recent Instagram post: “Thanks to all my haters who think I’m bringing down the organization, I clearly am not,” Lindsay wrote Monday.
She continued, “The Carolina Panthers Organization is an excellent 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 squad fair and honest.”
Lanouette and the Panthers also stressed that Lindsay made it onto the team because of her talent for dancing.
“My goal is to create a team of individuals who absolutely light fires on the field but in the dressing room they are incredible people, good friends, good people and at the end of the day you have to go through the door first and get to that one Job,” Lanouette told BuzzFeed.
“Members of the TopCats are hired based on their qualifications and skills,” 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 national origin. We wish all TopCats including Justine Lindsay an incredible season.”
Lindsay’s latest hiring comes as conservative lawmakers in several states pass legislation criminalizing trans-sports people.
Republican lawmakers in Ohio passed legislation in the House of Representatives on Wednesday that would ban trans girls and women from participating in high school and collegiate athletics. The bill would also mandate a “verification process” for genital inspections for athletes suspected of being trans.
In March, Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds signed legislation banning trans girls and women from participating in high school and collegiate sports. Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards allowed a similar statutory ban to become law by not vetoing it, although he did not sign it.
Black cheerleaders also remain a minority in the NFL, with Eurocentric standards of beauty like straight hair remaining the norm for dancers.
However, Lindsay is allowed to keep her bald look, which she adds is another opportunity to “inspire other young girls who may be unsure about rocking their bald look.”
Overall, despite the obstacles the league still faces, Lindsay said she’s excited to pave the way as a black trans woman: “This is big,” she told BuzzFeed. “I think more people need to see that. It’s not because I want recognition. It’s just meant to shed some light on what’s going on in the world.”
Other NFL teams have made strides 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 male dancer.