Justine Lindsay has always loved dancing, but she didn’t know that one day she would make history.
The 29-year-old is the newest member of the Topcats, the Carolina Panthers’ cheerleading squad — and the first openly trans NFL cheerleader.
The native of Charlotte said that when he made the team, the magnitude of what he did did not really dawn on him, until he started writing a carpet to share the news on Instagram.
Having grown up in the church, Lindsay said, her faith in God led her to where she is today. He is proud that he can’t continue his acting career but do it by himself.
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QCity Metro spoke with Lindsay about her love of dancing, her time at JCSU and how she is doing on and off the sidelines.
Answers have been edited for clarity and brevity.
When did you decide to leave?
My parents and family already knew what it was when I was young. They didn’t put me in a situation where they forced me to go play with your trucks and stuff like that. They just wanted to see which way I would go into it and then, whatever way it was, grow into it. And when I was ready to tell them my feelings and who I am, they were ready to sit down with me.
I left them when I was 12 years old, but I changed when I was 17 years old.
When you changed at 17, how was the general acceptance from the people around you?
I remember not getting support from other trans women because, in the society we live in now, everyone is their own person. They want to look good. So, they won’t really tell you how to find yours or help you. So, I didn’t have that support.
I remember hanging out with girls like me, and they would tell me to just walk around, just blend in as much as possible with the crowd.
At first, it was difficult but I figured it out. As I grew older, I began to grow. I started to see what works for me, and what doesn’t work for me. And now I am prepared by the way I live in public.
We know you have a background in dance. How did you get into dancing?
I’ve been playing since I was five or six years old. The first time I saw Alvin Ailey, I knew that dancing was something I wanted to do. Also, at the time, because I was a baby in 1992, there weren’t enough African-American actors released at the time and even though I didn’t really know what that meant at the time, I just knew that I wanted to. to play. My mom and dad made it their point to go ahead and do that.
How has your acting career evolved over time?
I went to the North Carolina Dance Theater, now the Charlotte Ballet. I was there studying dance, modern jazz, and contemporary jazz. I also went to California and studied under Debbie Allen. I got into Hip-Hop, salsa, Flamenco, African dance and musical theater acting.
You attended Johnson C. Smith as an undergrad. What happened to you there?
It was good. I would say it wasn’t as bad as I thought. I think when I went there, I was the only one who showed that I was on campus or just going to school. When I went there, there were others in the LGBTQ community so people were just open to seeing that and accepting it.
I was never insulted or treated differently. I was welcomed like everyone else. I just felt like that was the time when change was starting to happen, especially out here in North Carolina, because we’re still in the Bible belt. People were open minded.
What got you into JCSU?
I was on what you might call a pep squad called the golden bullets. My beloved coach Janell Joyner was a cat lady back in the days of the Charlotte Bobcats. The funny thing is when he saw me for the first time he saw something special. He saw an actor in me, not me as a cross. He only saw a person who likes to dance. He saw so much potential in me that he told me that whenever I was preparing for the “big leagues” he would take me under his wing.
Have you ever felt jealousy or hatred from your fellow dancers for being trans?
Not at all. If anything, my teammates were always there to help me and asked me for help. They were like, “Hey, listen, since you have all this training, you can show us a couple of steps, help us get to that step.”
I just think when you grow up, you can talk to everyone.
I’m the type of person who wants to see everyone win. I don’t want to be that person who will keep information that is important to me. If I know a way to help you get to where you need to be, I will do that.
I was lucky enough to have girls on the team who wanted to learn and get better.
How did you hear about the audition with Topcats?
I was scrolling through the Carolina Panthers website and saw the Topcats marketing effort. I just registered my name. This was during the summer of 2021, before the actual auditions. A month had passed, and of course I had forgotten about it until I got a reminder in my signed email. I was scared and called my mom.
Then he said, “What? What are you afraid of? You know how to dance so just go out and do your thing. And if you don’t, try again.”
I went out and tried and made the team a few months later.
How was the audition process for you?
First, we had prelims where we had to submit a video evaluation while doing a choreographed routine.
I think it was like over 600 people applied, and only 180 made it to the semi-finals.
The semi-finals were in-person, and we had to go through the techniques, learning three or four different styles of play that we had to memorize.
If you cut through the choreography, then you will go to the final, where there were only 80 of us. So you can only imagine how tough the competition was. Everyone was playfully shooting each other and trying to push each other to be the best.
How did you go about creating the team?
We waited for three to four days. I was just worried like everyone else. I remember that I received a call from my coach while I was driving, and I pulled into a church parking lot.
After he told me I made the team, I just took second, and I just thanked God for not only allowing me to be able to play but to be me while doing it.
How did your colleagues respond to you being in the team?
My coworkers didn’t even know I was trans at first, but they love it. It’s obviously something new for them, but they have my support and I have theirs and they’re just with me through the whole process. They let me know that if I wanted to talk about anything they would always be there for me. We are like our little sororities and kinships because we have boys on the team too. We’re just like a big family, and we protect each other and we just make sure we have each other’s backs.
How does it feel to be a trailblazer in the professional cheerleading business?
I’m glad I was able to do it, because someone has to do it. And I think it just takes someone who is confident and just knows their worth.
It’s just a matter of faith, really. That helps me throughout my day, throughout my life. I’m just happy to be where I am now. I’ve had girls and guys come up to me and say, “Hey, listen, you’ve done this. So now I feel free to try.” I’m just happy to be in the place I am now to do it and realize it.
How do you expect to feel on your first day of the game?
Maybe I will cry, because it has been my dream and goal for a long time to become a Topcat. I’m happy, but I feel like I don’t have my time yet. I think I will have it once I hear all the fans and everyone on the field and just go through the actual experience.