Making history! Justine Lindsay is the NFL’s newest star — and the season hasn’t even started yet.
The 29-year-old dancer joined the Carolina Panthers’ TopCats cheerleading squad in March, making her the first openly transgender cheerleader in NFL history.
“Cats Out the Bag you are looking at the newest member of the Carolina Panthers TopCats Cheerleader’s @topcats as the first Transgender female,” Lindsay wrote via Instagram after joining the team. “I would like to thank the beautiful and talented dancers who supported me along the way alumni TopCats family and friends for your love and support. I would not have gotten to this moment in my life if it wasn’t for the support.”
Chandalae Lanouette, the director of the TopCats, told BuzzFeed News that Lindsay had noted on her application that she’s trans, but it was her talent that landed her a spot on the squad. “My goal is to create a team of individuals that are absolute fire on the field 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,” Lanouette explained in an interview published on Saturday, June 4.
The NFL isn’t a league known for its progressivism, and its cheerleading squads are no exception. A report from the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport showed that 69 percent of NFL players in 2020 were Black, but a similar survey estimated that only 17 percent of the league’s cheerleaders were Black. The league also has no oversight rules to make sure that diverse candidates are considered for the cheer squads.
Cheerleaders have also been open about the rigorous beauty standards upheld by the squads, which often prize traditionally white features. Hair-whipping, for example, is often a major part of choreography, but not every person’s hair texture allows them to achieve the same kind of effect.
Lindsay, for her part, was worried that her bald style would be a problem, but her coach allowed her to keep it. Now, she’s pleased that she can “inspire other young girls who may be insecure rocking their bald look.”
She also is proud to represent a huge milestone for the NFL and cheerleaders everywhere. “This is big,” she told BuzzFeed News. “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.”
Keep scrolling for five things to know about Lindsay.