[Note: I do not intend to ignore or trivialize the heartbreaking and terrifying world news. I have nothing to say about it, so I offer you a reminder that there is news in the world to celebrate as well.]
Some breakthroughs come where you would never expect them. The National Football League is often a bastion of racism as well as all kinds of queer- and transphobia, so it’s especially exciting that the Carolina Panthers have a Black trans cheerleader. Here’s Rose Minutaglio, writing about Lindsay in Elle.
When Lindsay made the Carolina Panthers’ TopCats squad last year, she upended decades of deeply-rooted stereotypes about cheerleaders. For many football fans, her presence in the stadium has symbolized the start of a new chapter for NFL cheer, one where “it’s okay to be your most authentic self,” Lindsay says. Since then, she has started a podcast about her experience, written a viral essay on trans rights, and spoke at a GLAAD event spotlighting inclusion in professional sports. As transgender voices continue to be silenced all across the country, Lindsay is making hers louder than ever.
Lindsay came to cheerleading from dance. Before she transitioned, her mother enrolled her in ballet school, to her delight and her father’s confusion. By the time she was 14, she had moved across the country to be part of an exclusive dance academy. “I was around people who were open about being who they are,” Lindsay says. “I became more comfortable asking, ‘Who am I?’” By the time she was 18, she was a serious dancer, and she was Justine.
Two things about Justine’s story stand out: first, she comes from a basically supportive and loving Black family. We hear far too much narrative from the media about Black homophobia and transphobia. In the same vein as George Johnson’s YA memoir-manifesto, All Boys Aren’t Blue (which has the distinction of being the second most banned book of these minority-controlled book-banning times), Lindsay’s story counters that narrative.
I think my dad always knew, but there was a denial stage, which every parent, whether you’re the mother or the father, will have. It’s that moment of, ‘Oh, my God, I don’t want this for my child.’
Now, he travels to the games to watch his daughter in the cheerleading squad.
Second, Lindsay has joined a world that many would dismiss as trivial or retrograde, a world which is changing in important ways:
The life of an NFL cheerleader requires a lot of glitter, but it’s not always glamorous. Most are part-time employees, despite spending countless hours at practice and traveling to games. Some have to pay for their own uniforms, while making little more than minimum wage. Until recently, many were asked to abide by strict handbooks that dictated who they could date and how much they could weigh.
For decades, NFL cheerleaders were also secretly enduring workplace sexual harassment and unsafe working conditions. In the post #MeToo era, a string of new lawsuits against NFL coaches, trainers, and even the league itself, has provided some sense of justice and hope for a better future. The fight is far from over, but the very public reckoning has also led squads to consider rebrands that redefine what it means to be a professional cheerleader. Skirts are longer. Men have joined teams. And, just like Mattel did with Barbie, squads are now promoting dancers’ day jobs as nurses, teachers, and engineers on social media and in promotional videos.
Finally, despite all the pushback and obstacles, and her unwillingness to deny the harsh environment she and her fellows face, she is a fierce advocate for Black trans joy.
Social media trolls can be blocked, but it’s much harder to ignore real-life bullies screaming at you full volume from the stands. “I wholeheartedly wish I could tell you that, on game day, all of our fans celebrate Justine,” [TopCats coach Chandalae] Lanouette says. “But that’s just not 100 percent the case.” Some fans asking for TopCats selfies request she step out of the photo. One time, Lindsay received a post-game DM so mean that she called Lanouette in tears. “It really made me want to clap back, but I couldn’t do that,” Lindsay says. “I have people looking up to me who could be affected by what I say.”
A total of 22 states have banned transgender kids from participating in sports in accordance with their gender identity, with many laws, including in Lindsay’s home state of North Carolina, disproportionately impacting transgender girls by defining them as “biologically male” and categorizing them as a “threat” to fair competition. It breaks Lindsay’s heart knowing that the next generation of transgender children might lose access to outlets like sports which, just as dance did for her, can help people find and express their true selves. “I will fight this until I can’t fight anymore,” she says.
Along with the anger, and the commitment to the cause, here’s Lindsay herself, in the viral Insider essay linked above:
Anytime you’re doing something great or positive, someone’s always going to come behind and try to steal your joy. So I just have to continue to do what I love to do.
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