Tre’ Booker and Chris Crawford never know what they’re going to hear when they walk onto the field each Sunday and cheer on their Carolina Panthers. As two of the first male cheerleaders in team history, they know their presence alongside their fellow dancers’ short skirts and pompoms may raise some eyebrows.
But they also know they can inspire. The Los Angeles Rams became the first NFL team to add male cheerleaders three years ago, and since then, 11 clubs have followed suit. Booker and Crawford are out gay, Black male cheerleaders in a sport dominated by heteronormativity and all of its cultural trappings.
Their place on the TopCats roster sends a strong message to anybody who may be watching, especially other football-loving male dancers who may want to cheer on their favorite team one day, too.
“I know I’m not doing this for just me,” Booker said. “I’m doing this for the person who will step behind me.”
Booker, Crawford and Melvin Sutton made the TopCats this season and instantly garnered attention, including a feature story in the Charlotte Observer. They share a brotherly bond and love for dance and football. Up until recently, those two interests were perceived as anathema to each other, especially for men.
But Booker and Crawford have never been afraid to counter stereotypes. Before attending art school, Booker was jeered when he landed his first split at a school pep rally, with classmates proclaiming he had no balls. Crawford heard similar taunts growing up in central Georgia. They didn’t let the ignorance of their peers slow them down.
“For a while, it bothered me. It would cut me deep,” Crawford said. “But I got to the point where I was like, ‘This is somebody else’s opinion of me, and at the end of the day, I define myself.’”
Booker arrived at the same realization in his teenage years, though there was some trial and error. For him, pushing boundaries was important.
“When you’re first coming out, you kind of give into that stereotype. It’s like, ‘Yeah, maybe I should be as gay as I possibly can, because that’s what the stereotype believes me to be,’” he said. “Once you go to that extreme, you have a realization as an individual that maybe that extreme is not who you are, but you have to go there to figure out if that is who you are.”
Booker always knew performing was part of his identity. With an Emmy-award winning director for a godmother (Joanne Hock), Booker’s parents encouraged him to pursue dance. Prior to joining the TopCats, Booker was a main stage dancer on Disney’s cruise line.
He and Crawford first met as students at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts in Winston-Salem. Now, they get to support each other every day, with a boost from their beloved coach, Chandalae Lanuoette.
“Chandalae is the best thing that’s ever happened to me in this process,” Booker said. “She pushes me to be myself. She says, ‘If you want to wear a skirt, just say that. If you want to wear a crop top, just say that. Don’t feel like you have to appear to fit into the status quo of what they expect you to be.’”
Booker and Crawford say they’ve experienced nothing but support from the Panthers players and organization, which makes their jobs a whole lot easier. But there are still some awkward moments, such as when they tag along with the female TopCats for certain in-person appearances.
They get through it by being themselves.
“We are from the Carolinas. This is the Bible Belt,” Booker said. “I’m also very religious. But I also know I have to be my honest self whether I have my uniform or not. It doesn’t censor who I am. It adds to who I am.”
Twelve weeks into the season, Booker and Crawford are at ease on an NFL field. For two out gay men, that’s no small feat.
They feel blessed.
“The team and organization are so welcoming to us as we are,” Crawford said. “I feel at home. I feel so comfortable where I am. That’s something I feel like the LGBTQ community doesn’t get to say a lot.”