When the 2022 NFL season officially starts in September, the professional football league will welcome its first transgender cheerleader.
In a recent Instagram post, Justine Lindsay, a 29-year-old Black trans woman, announced she would be joining the Carolina Panthers’ cheerleading squad, the TopCats. The news was first reported on by BuzzFeed over the weekend.
“Cats Out the Bag you are looking at the newest member of the Carolina Panthers TopCats … the first Transgender female,” Lindsay wrote in an Instagram post on March 30. “This is a moment I will never forget and I cannot wait to show you all what this girl has to bring.”
In a post on Monday, however, Lindsay revealed that she has been subjected to transphobic harassment since her barrier-breaking announcement.
“Thank you to all my haters who think I’m bringing the organization down, clearly I don’t. The carolina panthers Organization is an excellent one, one that supports all people,” she wrote.
She added that she hopes to pave “the way for those under me who are scared and afraid to take that step because it is not easy to do when you have ignorant people making comments.”
Lindsay’s historic announcement comes as transgender athletes in the U.S., especially trans women and girls, face restrictions and bans in school sports. Her hiring also comes as Black women cheerleaders continue to be underrepresented in the field. Lindsay told BuzzFeed News that she is happy to represent Black trans women in the sport.
“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.”
The Trevor Project, an LGBTQ youth crisis intervention and suicide prevention organization, said Lindsay’s hiring in the NFL is significant given that a report in April found that fewer than 1 in 3 adults know a transgender person. The organization said this could give young LGBTQ people more hope.
“Lindsay’s story can inspire so much more than victory,” Preston Mitchum, director of advocacy and government affairs at The Trevor Project, said in an email to NBC News. “She can also set the stage for greater acceptance within our society and give young people watching a possibility model for what their future can look like.”
Mitchum added that Lindsay’s visibility comes amid increased attacks on the trans community.
“It is heartening to see someone like Justine Lindsay be her authentic self in a place like the NFL, which occupies such a powerful position in our culture,” Mitchum said. “This type of representation is laudable, particularly at a time when young transgender and nonbinary people are being thrown into the center of the political arena — and at a time where being visible can also mean being subjected to harm.”
In a statement to BuzzFeed News, the TopCats’ director, Chandalae Lanouette, said she is proud of Lindsay, adding that the team values her talent and spirit on and off the field.
“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 told the outlet.
A spokesperson for the Carolina Panthers said members of the TopCats are hired based on their qualifications and abilities.
"Our organization is an equal opportunity employer and does not discriminate because of age, race, religion, color, disability, sex, sexual orientation, or national origin," Ryan Anderson, director of communications for the Carolina Panthers, wrote in an email to NBC News. We wish all the TopCats, including Justine Lindsay, an incredible season."
As Lindsay continues to break barriers in the sport, she said she hopes to use her voice to uplift Black trans women and shut down online trolls.
“I will continue to be that pioneer I will continue to inspire and help my African American beautiful trans sisters until my last breath,” she wrote in Monday’s Instagram post. “So please mind your manners and understand that if you can’t say anything nice please keep it to yourself.”