In a league not known for its progressiveness, Justine Lindsay just made NFL history.
The 29-year-old is the newest member of the Topcats, the Carolina Panthers’ cheerleading squad, and is the first openly trans cheerleader in the NFL.
In an Instagram post announcing she was joining the Topcats, Lindsay came out as trans to her new teammates and the rest of her community as well.
“Cats Out the Bag, you are watching Carolina Panthers new member TopCats Cheerleader’s @topcats as the first transgender woman,” the caption read, which was alongside a photo of her smiling in her cheerleading uniform.
“I was so scared,” Lindsay told BuzzFeed News on the Instagram post in her first interview since joining the team. “There are just some things you can’t publish.”
Even Lindsay’s best friend, whom she calls her sister, didn’t know she was trans. It was a secret he had kept from everyone but his family.
“When I posted it, I felt like whatever reaction I get from everyone, it doesn’t matter,” Lindsay said. “And then my phone started exploding.”
There are no official records of NFL cheerleaders throughout history, but it appears Lindsay is the first trans person to be an NFL cheerleader, and she said she’s happy to “knock down that door” for future trans athletes.
Chandalae Lanouette, the director of Topcats, said Lindsay had noted in her application that she was transgender, but her talent, not her history, is what brought her to the team.
“My goal is to build a team of individuals who are an absolute focus on the pitch 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,” said Lanouette.
While NFL cheerleading squads have recently begun allowing men onto rosters, there has been little progression for women. Most teams still gravitate towards an “all-American” (read: white, thin, European beauty standards) look, where women are expected to perform like athletes but look like pinup models.
Black women make up a minority of NFL cheerleaders, and even fewer wear their hair natural. Lindsay said that while she was preparing to try out for the Topcats, she watched Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders: Making the Team, a CMT reality show that follows women’s auditions for the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders, and noticed their appearance was a important factor in determining whether they were selected.
Lindsay was relieved when her trainer told her she could keep her head bald and said she’s happy to “inspire other girls who may be insecure by rocking their bald looks.”
When cheerleaders aren’t performing on the sidelines, they represent the team at everything from community events to fundraisers to business conferences. Lindsay said she takes pride in breaking down any barriers as a Black trans woman.
“This is great,” he said. “I think more people need to see it. It’s not because I want recognition. It’s just to shed some light on what’s going on in the world.”
According to the Trevor Project, less than 1 in 3 people know someone who is transgender. Sam Ames, director of advocacy and government affairs at the suicide prevention organization for LGBTQ youth, said in a statement to BuzzFeed News that visibility of the transgender community is “critical.”
“Our research shows that LGBTQ youth report that seeing LGBTQ representation from celebrities and athletes made them feel good about being LGBTQ,” Ames said. “Especially in a place like the NFL, which occupies such an important place in our culture, the story of a transgender cheerleader can inspire so much more than victory. It can give the young watchers a dream to hold on to and a future to hold on to.
“I’m happy because I was able to kick down that door and tell people, ‘Hey, we’re not just sexual beings,'” Lindsay said. “‘We are real human beings who want to improve ourselves.’ I felt like, Why not tell the world, ‘Hey listen, this is a great achievement.'”