#SafeToDream: ‘It gives a voice to show it’s OK to be who you are’

Aviva are lighting up Aviva Stadium for the first time in Irish history with the colours of Pride. The iconic home of Irish soccer and rugby will be awash with rainbow colours until June 8. Pictured at the turning on of the lights are Republic of Ireland captain Katie McCabe with team-mate and partner Ruesha Littlejohn, right. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

Sitting in a Technicolor Aviva Stadium on Monday night, Katie McCabe turned to Ruesha Littlejohn and dreamed out loud.

“How nice would it be to walk out here with the girls,” said the Ireland captain. “One day, I can definitely see it happening. We have to get results under our belt now and get ourselves into a good position.”

As Dublin sat quietly in the darkness, the stadium was coated in a rainbow of lights thanks to Aviva’s Safe to Dream campaign, part of their partnership with Dublin’s Pride 2019.

The setting provided a collection of eye-catching photos, but on closer inspection it was one with McCabe and Littlejohn holding hands that stood out. International teammates, the pair were casually announcing their relationship, and hoping it could make life a little easier for any other girls in their boots.

“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,” said McCabe.

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

McCabe, recently a Women’s Super League title winner with Arsenal, believes she has a “responsibility” to speak about her situation but the 23-year-old didn’t feel any apprehension ahead of this week’s “reveal”.

“I don’t think we over-thought it that much, we didn’t over-think anything too much, we were just like ‘OK let’s support something about who we are.’ We didn’t think twice about it,” she said.

“We are both very comfortable now and open,” said Littlejohn, the Scotland-born Irish international and London Bees forward, “There is nothing to hide now, so if we can help someone, we are here to do it.

“We didn’t feel that we had to [hide] but we felt we were comfortable to do it and we weren’t scared to do it. We are quite happy to help.”

McCabe, who was named Ireland captain at just 21 years of age, came out “quite young” to her family, and was pleasantly surprised by the lack of reaction.

“For me, I never really hid it. 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 ‘OK girls, this is who I love’,” she said.

“And then they are like, ‘Why were you even scared to tell us?’ And I don’t know 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, it’s to show people that it’s OK to come out and hopefully they can kind of look up to us in a way.”

Coming out in the family living room can be daunting, but what about a dressing room?

“We actually said it’s probably easier,” said Littlejohn with a laugh. “Within the women’s game, there are a lot of gay footballers. So everyone is supporting of each other. There is really no judgment there.”

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

But what if you were two men, two Ireland international teammates? Can you imagine this discussion involving a couple in the men’s game?

“I can’t imagine that. Not right now,” said Littlejohn, before McCabe agreed: “No, not right now and I don’t know why that is. I don’t know if men are less accepting, obviously we are just assuming maybe someone is gay.”

Littlejohn insists that with the percentage of gay people in the wider community there must be some in the dressing rooms of football.

“With the numbers and stats these days, you’d think that there is but obviously they are too scared to come out and they are not comfortable,” she said.

They are scared of being judged or being slagged. It’s like us, ‘Who cares?’

McCabe, sister of former Shamrock Rovers winger Gary, said she’d never spoken to him about the prospect. It may require more bravery than McCabe said she needed to open up this week, but she’d like to see a male contemporary do the same.

“I think it does need one person to step up,” she said. “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. Maybe it will happen, maybe someone will come out tomorrow, but you never know.

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

Cutting a relaxed figure by her side, Littlejohn suggested the high-profile nature of the men may discourage them from sharing their private life in such a way. No matter, this was a day for a couple comfortable in their skin and keen to ensure others feel empowered to be the same.

“I’m not ashamed of who I am, I don’t hide anything, I don’t hide anything on my Instagram, Twitter, so I think this is the first time having interviews about it but nothing has changed for me,” said McCabe.

“I am who I am, who I have always been. Speaking about it is important.”

A smiling Ruesha looked on with no little pride.

“Katie’s at a massive club, she’s captain of Ireland... there’s a lot of kids out there that follow her on social media and it’s always growing. Her being openly gay… is going to make a huge difference to a lot of people out there. You’d hope so anyway.”

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