'I'm not ashamed of who I am and not scared to hide anything'

Ireland captain Katie McCabe opens up about her relationship with team-mate Ruesha Littlejohn to mark the start of Pride month.

KATIE MCCABE AND Ruesha Littlejohn sit back, looking out over the Aviva Stadium, and chat as if it’s about the next game. As if they’ve done it before. Comfortable, relaxed, nothing to hide, nothing to fear. 

As captain of the Ireland women’s national football team, and member of Arsenal’s recent league-winning side, McCabe, even at 23, is no stranger to microphones and cameras.

But this is the first time both she and team-mate Littlejohn have spoken publicly about their three-year relationship.

Aviva Ireland light up Aviva Stadium to celebrate Pride Month Katie McCabe and Ruesha Littlejohn at the Aviva Stadium. Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE / SPORTSFILE

To others, it feels like a big deal. A big moment. Two Irish international footballers speaking honestly and openly about their sexuality, their personal lives, their pride at being role models for the LGBT+ community. But, in truth, it’s not. 

“I don’t think we overthought it that much,” McCabe says, when asked how easy or difficult it was to become ambassadors for Aviva’s Pride campaign. 

“We didn’t over-think anything too much. We were just like ‘Okay let’s support something about who we are.’ We didn’t think twice about it really.”

Littlejohn nods in agreement: “We are both very comfortable now and open. There is nothing to hide now, so if we can help someone, we are here to do it.”

A few hours previous, McCabe and Littlejohn were on hand to flick the switch that turned the Aviva Stadium — the iconic home of Irish football and rugby — into a beacon of openness, inclusivity and safety to mark the start of Pride month.

“For me, I never really hid it,” McCabe says of her sexuality. “I came out quite young to my family. At one point growing up in football when you are 15, 16, you’re not ready to come out, let’s say.

“You’re scared of what your friends will think but then when you do it eventually you’re like ‘Okay girls, this is who I love.’ And then they are like ‘Why were you even scared to tell us?’ And I don’t why but not everyone has those friends that accept it so easily.

So for us to come out and team up with Aviva in this ‘Safe To Dream’ campaign, it’s to show people that it’s okay to come out and yeah, kinda look up to us in a way.

McCabe, who at 21 became the youngest-ever captain of the women’s national team, is cognisant of the fact coming out may not be as easy for others, and understands the platform and responsibility she has to support the LGBT+ community. 

“We were thinking about this and if we change one or two lives with this and they can come out and feel like they can talk about it then that’s our job done,” the midfielder continues.

“Who knows, but it gives those people a voice to show everyone it’s okay to be who you are.

“I’m not ashamed of who I am. I don’t hide anything. I don’t hide anything on my Instagram or Twitter but I think this is the first time doing interviews about it, although nothing has changed for me. I am who I am, who I have always been. Speaking about it is important.” 

Aviva Ireland light up Aviva Stadium to celebrate Pride Month The Aviva Stadium will be awash with the pride colours until this Saturday. David Fitzgerald / SPORTSFILE David Fitzgerald / SPORTSFILE / SPORTSFILE

Littlejohn believes the women’s game is more accepting and openly speaking about it within a dressing room environment is actually easier than telling family and friends. 

“It’s probably easier,” the 28-year-old, who is currently on the books with London Bees, says. “Within the women’s game, there are a lot of gay footballers. So everyone is kind of supportive of each other. There is really no judgement there.”

McCabe agrees: “There’s actually no judgement and that’s being totally honest with you. Anyone we have come across, it’s just like ‘Okay, ye are in a relationship.’ Whether it’s with a man or a woman, no one really cares.

“It is a lot more easier and a lot more accepting maybe for us [than a male footballer].”

In that sense, could you ever imagine a member of the men’s national team sitting here in this position?

“I can’t imagine that. Not right now,” McCabe admits. “No, not right now and I don’t know why that is.”

There remains a stigma. 

“By the numbers and stats these days you’d say that there has to be [gay male players] but maybe they are scared to come out, they’re not comfortable — scared of being judged, being slagged,” Littlejohn wonders. 

“But I’m sure if one of them did [come out] it would be like us — who cares?”

It might just take one male player to come out?

“I think it does, I think we are in that generation now and are at that time where there should be a lad coming out and saying he is gay,” McCabe continues. “Maybe it will, maybe someone will come out tomorrow, but you never know.

“They are very public in what they do. They are on telly every day so maybe they just want to keep it to themselves.”

Littlejohn takes over: “Yeah, for the men I suppose they are so high profile and got so much media following them, more fans. Maybe for them, they think it’s their life and their business.”

Brighton and Hove Albion Women v Arsenal Women - FA Women's Super League - AMEX Stadium McCabe won the Women's Super League with Arsenal this season. PA Wire / PA Images PA Wire / PA Images / PA Images

Both McCabe and Littlejohn would love to be in the public spotlight over the next month at the Women’s World Cup, but Colin Bell’s Ireland missed out on qualification despite a hugely encouraging campaign. 

The team have made progressive strides under Bell’s stewardship in the last two years and while it is naturally disappointing to have to watch the global tournament from afar this summer, McCabe is coming off an excellent club season in England with Arsenal.

“Seeing girls going off, team-mates I have back at Arsenal, going off with the other teams,” she says, having recently signed a long-term contract renewal with the Gunners.

“Yeah, I’m jealous they are going but it has been a good year with the club.

“Our focus for the national team now is the start of our European qualifying campaign in September, when we play Montenegro in Tallaght. 

“We learned a lot from the last campaign. It matured us definitely. But I think we will be ready and focused now to go into our September game up in Tallaght. It’ll be nice getting back home.”

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