After becoming a member of the Carolina Panthers TopCats cheerleaders in March, Justine Lindsay had heard that there was nothing like the team's first home game of the season. That sentiment proved true.
"It was the best moment I could imagine," she recalled in an interview earlier this week of the Panthers' season opener on Sept. 11. "It felt like it was about 115 degrees and there were so many people in the stands. It was a beautiful Sunday."
Lindsay, 30, is the first openly transgender cheerleader in the NFL. Her arrival on the NFL was first announced in a personal Instagram post back in March and was followed in June by a host of media coverage. Now, more than halfway through the NFL season and in support of Transgender Awareness Week (Nov. 13-19), Lindsay is determined not only to be a role model for others but to enjoy every second of the process.
Lindsay, who was raised in Charlotte, North Carolina, recalled the day when TopCats director Chandalae Lanouette told her she made the team. She was driving through an unfamiliar part of Charlotte and pulled into a parking lot of a church filled with people.
"I heard 'Congratulations' and I just blacked out," she said. "The next thing I knew I jumped out of my car and was crying and jumping hysterically. These people came over to me and asked me if I was OK, and when I told them what had happened, they gave me a hug and told me they were so proud of me. It was a beautiful moment, getting that encouragement from people I didn't even know really hit home."
Lindsay said she's received support from so many from within the Panthers organization and the Charlotte community. But being the first openly trans cheerleader hasn't come without its challenges.
She was "already dealing with" questions that go through seemingly every dancer's mind: Am I good enough? Am I skinny enough? Do I look the part? Then, she was faced with endless ugly comments from people on social media.
"For people who have never met me to make comments about my upbringing, it really just made me think, Wow, I thought we were moving forward," she said. "But I have to tune it out and continue to be a strong vessel for my community in some way, shape or form. It's not easy but I'm pulling through. I have an amazing support system with my family, my teammates, my coach, the Teppers (the Panthers' owners) and everyone within the organization. Everyone stood 10 toes down for me and checked in to make sure that I was mentally prepared for this, and they are still checking in.
"Being out on the field on Sundays representing this organization is more than me just being a cheerleader. It's being a face of the possible. I never thought I would have this much courage to do this. ... I have had so many parents of young kids in the trans community say thank you for what I'm doing and that their son or daughter is watching me. They are so pleased to see that I'm tearing down that wall."
Lindsay said she's learned so much about herself during the last year, with the most important being to take the time to love herself.
"This is just the beginning," she said. "I appreciate everyone who has been supporting me from March to now. I love them and hope I can still inspire young transpersons to let them know they can do the same thing I'm doing, if not more. I just hope I can be an inspiration to someone out there."