Male NFL Cheerleaders Are Starting to Dress for Themselves

They're ditching bland athletic apparel for sequins, chokers and eyeshadow, challenging heteronormativity on and off the field.

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Male NFL Cheerleaders Are Starting to Dress for Themselves
Screenshot:Pro Dance Boyz (Fair Use)

The football field is perhaps the last place one might expect to see a male athlete in a bedazzled lavender top with a matching choker. But as the NFL cheerleading audition season kicks off, the boys are back on the sidelines and sparkling—literally!—like never before.

Being a male cheerleader in the NFL is no longer rare. Only a handful of teams, including the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders and the Raiderettes, have maintained their all-woman status, and several teams have even shifted away from their old, gendered team names (the Saintsations became the Saints Cheer Krewe and the SeaGals became the Seahawks Dancers, to name a couple). But while male cheerleaders have largely been expected to sport bland athletic apparel, closer to the players’ unembellished Nike warm-ups than the sequined glamour of the women cheerleaders, the men of NFL cheer are now pushing the limits of how LGBTQ+ people can express themselves in an arena where open queerness—or the ability to challenge gender norms at all—is exceedingly rare.

Chris is a member of the Carolina Panther TopCats. Photo:Chanelle Smith-Walker/TopCats (Other)

Dylon, a current professional cheerleader whose last name we can’t use because he’s in the process of re-auditioning for a team, told Jezebel in a phone interview that he plans to wear an all-black, fitted, and sleek outfit to this year’s upcoming tryouts—a massive departure from the jogger pants and t-shirts he’s worn in years past. “I am a very outgoing, flashy person with my personality, and I want my tryout outfit to speak to that,” he said. “My outfits used to be very tame, because I wasn’t sure what I needed to wear at that point. As a male dancer going into a female-dominated industry, I didn’t want to be too much, and I didn’t want to take away from what women had created.”

In 2018, the Los Angeles Rams made history when they hired the first two male cheerleaders in the NFL, who were also Black and members of the LGBTQ+ community (disclosure: I was a Rams cheerleader when the men joined the squad). They went on to perform the same choreography as the women. The move might sound unremarkable, given that high school and collegiate cheerleading teams have long included men. Where fans have come to expect bronzer-dusted cleavage and hair teased to the heavens, the mere existence of a cis man performing overtly sexualized choreography in the hyper-feminine world of NFL cheerleading was groundbreaking.

Four years later, those men, who are often more unapologetic about their gender expression in their personal lives than they are on the field, are making their identities known. Three LGTBQ+ men currently auditioning for the Patriots cheerleaders wore sparkling, fitted tops, something that has not been done, much less openly promoted, before. One cheerleader from the Carolina TopCats (Chris, who is pictured above) even wore the same crop top as his women counterparts, as well as small fitted shorts during auditions. (Dylon noted that the Panthers have long been at the forefront of the industry in terms of letting male cheerleaders express themselves on the job.)

That sort of gender diversity and individuality is sorely needed. In the century since the NFL first shoved its way into existence, the league has employed only 16 LGBTQ+ players, and only one man has come out while actively playing in the league: Carl Nassib of the Las Vegas Raiders, who publicly announced he was gay just last year. With queer male cheerleaders now peppered on cheer teams across the league, young LGBTQ+ people could at long last see themselves represented in a realm popularized by Bud Light and chants of “Let’s fucking go, man!” A new sort of “manhood” had entered the stadium.

Dropping feminine-presenting men into the rough-and-tough, sometimes bigoted atmosphere of the NFL presented a tricky problem: How could cheer teams integrate men without inviting discrimination from fans who simply weren’t ready to see men shaking their asses and pom-poms on the sidelines?

Chris of the TopCats. Photo:Chanelle Smith-Walker/TopCats (Other)

Over the last four years, the apparent answer to temper fan vitriol has been to costume male NFL cheerleaders in masculine-presenting outfits, like sweatbands, jerseys, or athletic apparel, so as not to make any (male) viewers uncomfortable. If they wore shorts, they were often long and somewhat baggy. If they wore sleeveless shirts or tanks, they were often paired with pants, which was a reversal of the rules that governed the women cheerleaders: small garments, lots of skin, and loads of glitter. Some men wore makeup on the field, offering a glimmer of their true selves, but a fan couldn’t spot the eyeshadow on their lids from more than ten rows away.

Sexuality has always been a complicated subject to broach in NFL cheerleading, regardless of gender. The women have long been expected to express a strong sense of sexuality and move in a suggestive manner, in order to even make the team. Off the field and on social media, however, they’re instructed not to show too much skin or post anything remotely sexual in nature, so as not to be deemed “sluts” or “bimbos.” When male NFL cheerleaders began joining teams, that tug-of-war between sexy dancing and actual sexuality became even more fraught, which may provide hints as to why most teams have leaned towards heteronormativity in costuming their new male teammates.

As the culture changes to allow men, especially queer men, to dress and present however they want, the image of the male cheerleader is blossoming too. Dylon said he’s started wearing a full face of makeup on game days, something he never did before NFL cheerleading. “Whenever the makeup artist puts highlighter on these cheeks, I feel unstoppable.”

“It feels so exciting to know that you don’t have to live a double life,” he said. “You don’t have to feel like this stuffy sense of professionalism or a false sense of who you are on the field or on the sideline.”

Of course, not every queer male cheerleader in the NFL wants or needs to wear makeup or tight shorts. Dylon also pointed out that with the recent trend of coed dance teams rising in popularity, the number of straight men on cheer teams has grown, too. So long as the men have the option to express their gender and sexuality on the field—and especially in a place you wouldn’t really expect to see archaic gender roles challenged—that’s progress, he says.

“I don’t ever want to feel like I am a male on the team,” he said. “I want to feel like I’m simply a part of the team. So in my brain, I want my uniform to match what everyone’s uniform looks like, I want all the uniforms to be cohesive, and I would love to have a uniform top that’s sleeveless with shorts, because we’re in the south and it’s hot.”

Perhaps the male fans of the NFL aren’t ready for men wearing makeup and glammed out crop tops. But that doesn’t really matter. The men of NFL cheerleading are doing things their way now.

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