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Gay and disabled: “I won’t let cerebral palsy stop me living my best life”

Damion Gross wears @AwkWeirdClub clothing (Photo: Kanarie Stodghill)

A gay man in Atlanta, Georgia, has picked up a large social media following with his videos and determination to become a model and influencer.

Damion Gross, aged 20, has cerebral palsy. It’s an umbrella medical term for a group of lifelong conditions that impact upon movement and coordination.

It’s caused by a problem with the brain that occurs before, during or shortly after birth. There is also a higher risk of cerebral palsy for premature babies or during multiple births. Gross is one of three triplets: his two brothers do not have the condition.

 

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He was diagnosed as a toddler when his mom took him to the doctor when he didn’t appear to be able to sit or crawl like other kids his age.

The severity of cerebral palsy differs from individual to individual, with some people not affected to a great degree, while others more noticeably disabled. Gross says his ability to move both his legs is affected: “Some people can have a mild case of cerebral palsy. It may not affect them as mine does, but… you can notice mine.”

Related: He refuses to let cerebral palsy disable his sex life, proudly says “I’m sexy!”

Because of this, he has less coordination over his legs walks in a noticeably more jerky fashion than most people. Although, as he recalls in one video posted online, doctors warned his mom he’d probably never be able to walk when they diagnosed him as a child.

Gross grew up in Washington DC but relocated to Atlanta about ten years ago. He is not currently working and lives with his mom. Life took a turn earlier this year when he decided to join Twitter. He began posting videos talking about his cerebral palsy.

To his surprise, a small local clothing company asked him if he would model for them.

“I was kind of nervous and skeptical,” he tells Queerty via Skype. “Because I didn’t really like taking pictures. But I did it anyway just for the experience.”

However, he was pleasantly surprised by how the photos came out.

“That was when I started taking it more seriously.”

Since then he has done several photoshoots, and in late September, he finally fulfilled his ambition to walk in a catwalk show.

“A friend of mine [Rashad Malik] goes to Georgia State University, and that’s where the fashion show was, and he wanted me to walk in his show.

“I was nervous because it was my first show in front of people. There were about 50+ people in the room, and I had to speak and walk in the show, but once I did it, I was not expecting all the love I got. They were screaming my name and just clapping for me and saying I did a good job.

Related: Gay man writes candidly about hooking up and having cerebral palsy

“And that really helped me. It made me more confident, to be able to speak in front of them and stuff like that and share my experience. They loved it.”

Gross is now hoping to take part in more fashion shows and photoshoots, to help raise awareness of cerebral palsy and break down stigma around disability.

Does he find that people have misconceptions around his disability?

“Yes, most definitely. They think I can’t do anything for myself, simply because I’m disabled.

“There is this stigma that we’re just hopeless and we always need somebody to help us. And yeah, for some people, they may need help, but the majority of us, we don’t need help at all. I’m very independent and have been independent ever since I was a child.”

Gross has also been happy to talk about his sexuality on social media. Being a member of more than one minority group comes with its challenges, although thankfully, the process of coming out to his family was not one of them.

Related: Ryan O’Connell: “Being gay is more accepted and understood than being disabled”

“I don’t have a regular coming out story. It’s hard to explain. My mom, she already knew, so she was kind of waiting for me. I told Twitter and they already kind of knew, so it was like, ‘Oh, OK’, and I didn’t really get any bashing or anything like that.”

Growing up, he says he experienced a lot of bullying at school.

“Elementary and middle school were very tough. About the time I got to High School, I was like, ‘You know what? It’s just words. And I know what I am. They’re just words and you can’t let them affect you. You got to be stronger than that.” So when I got to High School I stopped caring and was able to ignore it and just go on about my life.

“I wasn’t really bullied on my sexuality. I don’t know why. It was just about my disability my whole life.”

Last month, a video of Gross on a date went viral. He went out with Dondre Randolph of Real World Atlanta. The two met over Instagram. Gross later revealed on Twitter that it had been his first date and he’d been extremely nervous.

He says trying to date other men has been difficult and he’s had negative experiences online.

“Before that first date, I was always getting rejected … not even looked at as sexy, simply because I had a disability.

Related: Seeking sex and love while growing up gay and disabled

However, going on that date changed his outlook and made him realize that not everyone is automatically closed off to the idea of dating someone with a disability.

“People would always reject me, tell me I’m not their type, and I would always think it’s because of my disability, but I don’t think that anymore. I think you just have to meet the right person.”

Surprised by how viral the tweet proved, Gross is now coy about revealing too much of his personal life. However, he says he and Randolph have remained in touch and he hopes to see him again for another evening out this month.

Damion Gross wants to challenge stigma towards the disabled (Photo: Supplied)

“Everyone is the same,” he says when asked if he had a message for others in the LGBTQ community. “Don’t look at them a certain way, or don’t look at me a certain way because I have a disability.

“You have to get to know me before you can judge me. And just always be nice and be mindful of the disabled community because you don’t know what we’re going through and what we have going on.”

Gross says he has been surprised by the amount of support he has received online, and by the number of other gay people with cerebral palsy who have contacted him: “More than I expected.”

Going forward, he’s hoping to do more modeling and get more work in fashion. With over 65k followers on Twitter and 51k+ on Instagram, he’s becoming something of an influencer.

“I want to be signed to an agency, and eventually open my own agency for disabled models, simply because there’s not a lot of disabled models out there. But there are a lot of people who want to model, but the way society is set up, people might tell them they can’t do it because of their disability or tell them they don’t look like a model.

 

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“I feel like if I opened my own agency it would make them feel more appreciated and important.”

More than anything, though, he wants to change the way people look at those with disabilities.

“When I joined [Twitter] back in March I was not expecting to get this support and some of the opportunities that I’ve got, so I’m just very blessed and happy to be able to share my experiences and live my truth on social media.”

Growing up with cerebral palsy, it’s all Gross has ever known: it is not ‘different’ or ‘other’ to him.

“To be honest, if anything, it makes my life better. People may look at it as a burden and as having a bad effect on my life, but it’s actually a blessing because it’s made me stronger.”