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 she’s the first openly trans NFL cheerleader.
In an Instagram post announcing she was joining the Topcats, Lindsay came out as trans to her new teammates — as well as the rest of her community.
“Cats Out the Bag, you are watching the newest member of the Carolina Panthers TopCats Cheerleader’s @topcats as the first transgender female,” read the caption, which appeared alongside a photo of her smiling in her cheerleading uniform.
“I was so scared,” Lindsay told BuzzFeed News of posting to Instagram in her first interview since joining the team. “There are just some things you can’t post.”
Even Lindsay’s best friend, whom she calls a sister, didn’t know she was trans. It was a secret she had hidden from everyone but her family.
“I just felt like when I posted it, whatever reaction I get from everyone, it doesn’t matter,” said Lindsay. “And then my phone started blowing up.”
There’s no official record 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 “break open that door” for future trans athletes.
Chandalae Lanouette, the director of the Topcats, said Lindsay mentioned on her application that she was transgender, but that her talent, not making her history, landed her on the squad.
“My goal is to create a team of individuals who are absolute fire on the pitch, but incredible people in the dressing room, good friends, good people, and at the end of the day you have to walk through the door first to go to that place,” Lanouette said.
While NFL cheerleading squads have recently started allowing men onto the rosters, little progress has been made for the women. Most squads still lean towards an “all-American” look (read: white, thin, European beauty standards), where the women are expected to perform like athletes but look like pin-up models.
Black women are a minority of NFL cheerleaders and even fewer wear their hair naturally. 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 auditioning for the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders, and noticed that their appearance a big factor was in whether they were selected.
Lindsay was relieved when her coach told her she could keep her bald head, saying she likes to “inspire other young girls who might be insecure to rock their bald looks.”
When not performing on the sidelines, cheerleaders represent the team at everything from community events to fundraisers to corporate conferences. Lindsay said she is proud to break down all barriers as a black trans woman.
“This is big,” she said. “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.”
According to the Trevor Project, fewer than 1 in 3 people know someone who is transgender. Sam Ames, the 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 holds such a powerful position in our culture, the story of a transgender cheerleader can inspire so much more than just winning. She can give young viewers a dream to hold on to and a future to look forward to.”
“I’m happy because I was able to crack open that door and tell people, ‘Hey, we’re not just sexual beings,'” Lindsay said. “‘We are real people who want to improve ourselves.’ I was like, why don’t you tell the world, ‘Hey, listen, this is a great achievement.'”