Charlotte native makes NFL history as first openly transgender cheerleader

Charlotte native makes NFL history as first openly transgender cheerleader

Justine Lindsay during her audition for the Carolina Panthers' TopCats. Photo courtesy of Chanelle Smith-Walker/ Carolina Panthers

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Justine Lindsay is the happiest she’s ever been.

What’s happening: Lindsay became the NFL’s first openly transgender cheerleader in March, as Axios’ Laura Barrero reported.

Why it matters: Cheerleaders may technically be on the sidelines for most of the game, but Lindsay’s monumental step puts her front and center as an advocate for the LGBTQ+ community during a time when states are passing anti-trans legislation.

  • “I want to be able to speak on what I know to be real, because I’ve lived it,” Lindsay told me. “I do feel like I am a pillar in the world today, and what the world is going to be tomorrow, next year and in the years to come. I just hope that we continue to just all come together and just be a unit.”

Between the lines: Lindsay told me she did not attend therapy before transitioning, which is common and recommended by the World Professional Association for Transgender Health (WPATH). 

  • “Honestly, I didn’t need anyone to tell me who I was,” she said.
  • She added that her family knew at a very young age and they let her journey progress at its own pace. When she wanted to play with dolls, they never told her to go play with trucks.

She began to transition around age 17, but took a break around age 20 for more than a year, because of the mental toll of seeing what other trans women were going through.

  • By the numbers: Fifty transgender and non-binary people were violently killed in 2021, a record number per the Human Rights Campaign, and 16 have been killed in 2022. 
  • “You’re just being true to you, and it’s like, if that’s not worthy enough then what is? Why am I on this earth?” Lindsay said. “I think that’s also why a lot of trans girls and guys commit suicide [and] go through mental situations— because they don’t know if they fit in, because we’re already getting the backlash of society treating us a certain type of way when we just want to be ourselves. That’s it.”

A friend of Lindsay’s, a trans woman, was killed a week before Lindsay sent out her audition video to the TopCats.

  • “She was telling me, ‘hey, listen, you’re our breakout star. We love you, and we want to see you flourish,'” Lindsay said. “She was always telling me, ‘go after what you want.'”
  • Lindsay added her friend was her push to audition for the TopCats.

I spoke with Lindsay a few hours after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade. She said she was reading the post from Michelle Obama prior to the interview.

  • “I think it hit everybody hard,” she added. “I’m still processing it right now.”

Flashback: The Charlotte native’s dance training began at North Carolina Dance Theatre, today known as Charlotte Ballet. She studied ballet, jazz and modern dance before she was scouted by the Debbie Allen Dance Academy around age 12. She moved to California to train with the academy. And yes, she is a Grey’s Anatomy fan, in which Debbie Allen plays Dr. Catherine Fox.

Lindsay studied several types of dance, but ballet remains her first love, and she argues dance is a sport.

  • “We put in the same amount of work and dedication as any athlete,” she said.

What’s next: She can’t wait to step out onto the field at Bank of America Stadium for the first regular-season home game on Sept. 11 against the Cleveland Browns.

  • “I think I’m happy, more than I’ve ever been in my entire life because I’m able to be a leader of my community and just continue to live the dream that I’ve wanted to live for a long time,” she said.

Photo: Chanelle Smith-Walker / Carolina Panthers

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