Photo: Courtesy of Carolina Panthers TopCats, photo by Laura Wolff
It’s Pride month, and for the NFL that usually means it’s time to splash a fresh coat of rainbow paint over the shield, publicizing the partnership between LGBTQ+ organizers and the league’s first and only player to leave while in the NFL (even though he’s not currently employed by the league. ), and cashing in on oddball fan loyalty with Pride-themed games. For a league that faces persistent revelations of misogyny and discrimination, the once-a-year celebration of freaks in the NFL, despite good intentions, often feels more like a joke than a genuine tribute.
But there’s a different story happening in the South—one that subverts (or, at least, lessens the blow) of threats to the rights of pregnant, queer, and trans people across the country and especially in the southern states. The TopCats, the official cheerleading squad of the Carolina Panthers, are quietly one of the most progressive organizations in the NFL. As one of the many faces of the team, Chris Crawford, a 23-year-old black gay man who shifts between femininity and masculinity as he pleases, does much of the heavy lifting for gender identity diversity in a league that has glorified the gender binary since its inception. Crawford doesn’t care if fans are ready for people like him to appear on their televisions and in their stadiums, because shameless gender expressions like his are the future. And the future, it seems, is the Carolina TopCats.
Crawford, who grew up in Macon, Georgia, began dancing in high school and became a classically trained concert dancer, studying contemporary and ballet at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts. She likes cheerleading but doesn’t see it as a realistic path after high school. In fact, she told Jezebel, she never had any intention of becoming an NFL cheerleader until after she graduated college and realized her journey as a “little brown boy” who wanted to cheer wasn’t over.
Chris Crawford. Photo: Courtesy of Carolina Panther TopCats/Photo by Chanelle Smith-Walker
When Crawford showed up to the TopCat audition in 2021 with teammate Tre’ Booker, he knew the odds were slim. No man has ever made it to the TopCats, despite a surge in joint cheerleading squads in the NFL over the past five years. But Crawford and Booker were part of the first group of male cheerleaders on the Carolina squad, and Crawford, auditioning in his trademark spandex shorts and earrings, began to challenge gender norms from the moment he stepped onto the sidelines.
As an organization, TopCats has clearly given Crawford the space to be himself. On any given day, she may wear long, claw-like acrylic nails; a sports bra that matches her female teammates; more conservative tank tops; loose, rhinestone-lined athletic pants; or false eyelashes. While Crawford identifies as a man, the way he expresses his gender changes depending on the day, his emotions and the environment.
“I usually lean more towards my feminine side simply because growing up it was something I always said had to be put in a box. It’s something that should be locked down: Guys don’t do this, guys don’t do that,” Crawford said. “Now I’m in a space where I’m surrounded by people who love the fact that this is the real me.”
Photo: Courtesy of Carolina Panther TopCats/Photo by Chanelle Smith-Walker
Crawford says Chandalae Lanouette, director of TopCats, has allowed her cheerleaders to express themselves fully both on and off the job by creating a safe space, something cheerleaders often find difficult to do. She lets the men choose whether or not they will hold the pom-poms, even though nearly all of the other male NFL cheerleaders are rocking rally towels, and whether they want to wear a sports bra or Panthers-branded tank top to auditions. Teams also have nail sponsors, and male teammates are allowed to use sponsors as long as their nails follow the rules and regulations (usually, light-colored or team-colored nails, or french tips). And while the men’s teammates wore pants and tanks on the field, they were studded with crystal and even had turtleneck chokers.
“Chandalae have created an environment for me here that is unrivaled,” said Crawford. “Brightening who we are as individuals…whether people recognize it or not, influences the way we perform because at the end of the day, if you don’t feel good about your skin, you won’t perform at your best.”
NFL cheerleaders have long been expected to hide traces of individuality, limiting the expression of gender or sexuality that deviates from hetero norms in favor of greater team uniformity. It also means that ideals of uniformity and tradition have been armed as an excuse to exclude people of a different race or gender: the same disheveled hair, the same abs, and, oftentimes, the same skin tone. But adding men to the team, as the Los Angeles Rams first did in 2018, poses problems in that perceived uniformity. (Disclosure: I’m a Rams cheerleader right now.) In a space that could deflect homophobia, the safest bet initially is the male cheerleading costumes according to the gender binary: The women will stick with their different miniskirts and crop tops, and men will wear something closer to sportswear to avoid displaying a gender identity that fans are not used to seeing. (The self is expected to stay at home or in private Instagram profile posts.)
Anne Lieberman, director of policy and programs at Athlete Ally, says the differences in gender expression that occur at TopCats, from the femininity of transgender teammate Justine Lindsay to the fluid identities of Booker and Crawford, are integral to increasing the visibility of queer people. “There are so many different ways to express femininity,” they say. “Just because someone wants to dress more masculine one day doesn’t mean that they are non-binary people. …We need to have more complex conversations about gender and gender expression.”
Along with the excitement and purpose the NFL cheerleading has brought Crawford, it also puts him right in front of some of the most queer-hating Southern communities, at a time when conservative legislators are demonizing the entire LGBTQ+ community.
Crawford, left, and Tre’ Booker, the two male members of the TopCats. Photo: Courtesy of Carolina Panther TopCats/ Krista Jasso
“Being the gay man cheering in the South, I wouldn’t say it’s unbearable, but it’s very emotionally draining,” Crawford said. “It’s hard for me to wake up some days and say, ‘Okay, I have to do this performance, and I already know how uncomfortable the people around me can be.’” She often gets judgmental stares or is asked to take pictures of fans with female cheerleaders. , as if he was invisible or not part of the team. Once, she did a photoshoot at the team stadium in a historic white cheer skirt, only to be met with laughter and bad comments from the audience.
Crawford knew that by choosing to be himself with no regrets in this environment, he would face ignorance, even though he didn’t have to. So he smiled and maintained his composure, knowing that it would end eventually—and that he could always raise issues with the Panthers if things got out of hand. It’s exhausting, he says, but he’ll do it over and over again to lock in a better future for a boy like him.
Lieberman says much of this hatred stems from the toxic masculinity that has been infused into football from the start, in part because it is a contact sport. They have observed a high level of desire and pressure to fit in a space like the NFL with a very particular notion of masculinity. “We talk a lot about the pressure that cis and transgender women feel as a certain type of woman, but we spend less time talking about the pressure for the male community to be a certain kind of man, especially in men’s sports,” they said. . . “I think the more we have an understanding of the broader way to experience masculinity and maturity, the more we’ll start to see a really big shift in sport culture.”
Of the fans booing him, Crawford said: “I can’t sit down and talk to you to explain to you that this is the future and that you have to forget about it. I’ll be right here, and I’d rather be the first to catch this stubborn wave of energy so it’s easier for others to chase after me. This is just the beginning and these people will get used to it. They have no choice.”
Photo: Chanelle Smith-Walker/TopCats
When he saw the final image from the stadium shoot (above), Crawford said he was in tears. He knew there would always be a backlash; it was given from the start. But there’s not always someone like him or Booker or Lindsay in the cheerleading. His struggles, and his courage in the face of hostilities, mean that the next generation may not have to fight too hard—or at all. Looking at the photos, Crawford said he knew at the time that his presence in this team—which he called family—was greater than his. “It’s not just for me anymore. It’s out of my control,” he said. “This is for the world to see, for the world to know.”
There has long been an argument that the NFL doesn’t need cheerleaders—that feminism suffers as a result of dancers, regardless of talent, allegedly lowering themselves on the sidelines in favor of the male gaze. But neither of those things are true. People can work however they want to make a living, and the NFL does need cheerleaders—they may be the only window into real gender diversity and genuine self-expression on the pitch. And it certainly requires cheerleaders like Christopher Crawford, with or without a knitted skirt.