– Why did I take so long?
I haven’t had many moments in the last couple of months where I’ve questioned my decision to fully come out as gay as it fully validated me and I’ve received support from all corners of my life. But one thing that haunts me is why did it take me so long?
Ever since I completely blacked out, I feel like I’m on a winning tour with every conversation I have. I can’t describe how much the football community supported me.
For example, I wanted to confess to my former player who became my good friend. He’s still in his 20s and one of the youngest people I’ve talked to about coming out. He is from a wealthy suburb, played for me in the football academy, went to a major university, and then to MLS.
Perhaps someone in another sport with such a resume would not be welcoming and inclusive, but after entering it, I received this text:
“JD, for what it’s worth… you helped me turn pro. You helped me become a national champion. If you ever need anything, let me know. I just want you to be happy. That’s what matters most.”
It’s a microcosm of the support and love I’ve encountered and it goes to show that football here in the US is inclusive and welcoming.
I have been in football for a generation, coaching, directing and managing elite teams and programs in Chicago. Football life, as we say. I followed a dream that I had as a child from the first moment I touched the ball with my foot and realized that this game was my love and passion. How many people in the world can say they work in professional sports 15 minutes from where they grew up? Sometimes I get goosebumps when I drive up to the stadium thinking about it.
I started coaching in college and coached at the high school, elite club, junior college and division level. In 2001, I was appointed director of football for the Chicago Fire’s U-23 PDL program, which was the first development team for the Chicago MLS team. We have nurtured over 100 players who, in their first 10 years of existence, reached the professional level and qualified for the 2003 and 2009 North American Championships.
In 2008, I became Fire’s director of player development, overseeing all football programs for an MLS club below the MLS level. Through our academic system, over 20 players have moved to the MLS Fire team, with the U-20 team winning national titles in 2008 and 2012. The academy was the first MLS development program to win the prestigious USSDA championship in 2010 and 2015. I also helped MLS develop players in the US.
In 2017, I became chairman and director of football for the USL League Two franchise in Chicago and have been doing so ever since. In four years, we have had more players selected at the pro level in North America than any other amateur team.
In addition, I have advised a number of expanding MLS clubs and in 2022 became the managing partner of the Peoria City FC USL-2 team. Over the past 20 years of my work, more than 200 players have risen to the professional level.
While my professional life was going well, I created compartments for the rest of my life because I was certain that I was gay (or at least bisexual in my 20s and under 30s). The next step was that I didn’t have a personal life and I just immersed myself in work. The last step before I came out to everyone was to sort out the pieces of my life into boxes – work, family, gay friends, gay friends, and finally relationships with gays. Only a very small group of family members and friends knew the real me.
Placing things in compartments led to destructive behavior. I have not been honest about my true self with almost everyone in my professional life and my large group of straight friends. I wasn’t being honest with my gay friends as they thought I was more crazy than I was.
And when it came to gay “relationships” (and I have to quote relationships because others might think it’s a real relationship when it really isn’t), I imagined myself not always being truthful to impress. and/or hide who I was or what I did because I didn’t want to be really in the football world. These “relationships” were always doomed to failure because they were not based on the basic truths necessary for a strong and healthy relationship. I often sought out weak-willed or needy people, as it was easy for me to control the truth.
As for me, I dealt with the expectations associated with my past. I was born and raised on the South Side of Chicago in an area where all of our fathers were first responders in the city, mostly Irish and all Catholic. My father was a police detective and also a basketball coach at our local college; that’s how I got my coaching genes. I also had a big extended family with many athletes, coaches, lifeguards and teachers.
But it was my professional life that made me separate. There is such an emphasis on strength and masculinity in sports that being gay is perceived as a weakness. Anyone who is an athlete, coach, or at some level on a men’s sports team understands this. And I was terrified to find out that my sexuality didn’t fit with the culture.
Over time, I realized that it is possible to be gay and a man. I was finally ready to break out of this box that said you can’t be gay, a man in sports who loves to be gay and all the wonderful things that come with it, and it happened.
I’m gay. I’m a man. I work in sports. I like being gay. None of them define me individually, but all are part of who I am. I’m proud of it. And the love and support of literally everyone around made this time one of the happiest in my life.
I remember a recent story that made me realize that I did the right thing by opening up.
A few days after I told my football friends that I was gay, I went to meet one of my friends in a pub who already knew to watch Liverpool in the Champions League (being a fan of Manchester United ”, I might have a harder time telling people that I watched the Liverpool game than it comes out).
When I entered, I saw that my friend was with someone who was training me, but did not know that I was gay. I wasn’t necessarily ready for a frank conversation that day. But I went up to the table where they were sitting and asked him for the score of the game.
He said 2-0 and I said, “Damn, Liverpool won and I’m gay.” It came out of me so easily. After two minutes of “everything is cool” and “happy for you” fist bumps, we returned to talking about the game.
As someone who has gone on a journey, no one should ever have to worry about being themselves in the football world. The football culture here in the US stems directly from our fan base, which includes some of the most diverse and forward-thinking fans in any professional sport in North America.
I truly believe that our fans here are the most inclusive of all sports. But the dressing room mentality still makes it difficult for players, coaches and others to get out, so we all need to remember to get out of the box we’ve got ourselves into when we play sports.
I hope that the story of my journey will help anyone who may have the same feelings or thoughts as me. As someone who has been a mentor to many players and managers, I would like to help anyone who needs someone to talk to.
John Dohrn is Chairman and Director of USL League Two Football Club Chicago United and former Director of Player Development for MLS Chicago Fire. He can be contacted via Instagram @jdorn14 and also on twitter @jdorn14.
Story Editor: Jim Buzinsky
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