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Spin Doctor: DJ Joe Ross On Keeping the Beat and Beating Cancer

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By Donalevan Maines

“You’re gonna come out of this like a king,” David Muniz assures his friend, popular Houston DJ Joe Ross.

It’s October 4, 2011, and “this” is cancer, The Big C. Ross was about to begin his fifth round of chemotherapy.

Ross had just won his first of five consecutive titles as Favorite Male DJ in OutSmart’s Gayest and Greatest Awards (in some years, he tied for first). But instead of living the dream, Ross was feeling nauseous, trapped in a nightmare.

A few months prior, the music spinner says, “I noticed, while taking a shower, a little bump under my arm, the size of a pea. I went to my doctor, and she said it could be just a swollen lymph node from trying to fight off a sinus infection, [and I should] come back if I noticed it getting bigger.”

Two weeks later, the bump had become bigger, so his doctor sent Ross to an oncologist. It was “a tumor the size of a golf ball” by the time he started chemotherapy for lymphoma. “It spread very rapidly throughout my body,” says Ross, “but they told me that it was very treatable. It would be very intense, but they would push the chemo to my heart, and my heart would push it throughout the rest of my body.”

“It happened pretty suddenly,” recalls the DJ’s mother, Sue Ross. “Because he was so physically fit, the doctors were optimistic that it would be very curable, and his age [in his 30s] was to his benefit.”

On some days, the doctors would say Ross was “breezing through this.” On other days, he says, “It was bad.”

The DJ’s parents, Joe and Sue Ross, motored from Crockett to Houston (some 120 miles each way) for every treatment, which required him to spend about five days in the hospital every 17 days.

“One day,” his mother says, “we walked in with Joe, and they started to put him in a small room when a nurse said, ‘No, no. He has lots of company,’ so they moved us to a bigger room.”

Among his most faithful visitors was Muniz, who also filmed Ross’s treatments and later had the footage edited into a DVD.

“We got to know a lot of Joe’s friends,” said Sue Ross. “David was a constant friend.”

Ross grew up in Deer Park, the fourth of five children, with three older sisters and one younger sister. “It was great,” he says. “I didn’t know any different, although I guess I always wanted a brother.”

From a very young age, he recalls, “I sang in choir. I also played water polo and was on the swim team, but I loved music. I trained in opera. Italian and Spanish were my favorite to sing.” (His favorite current music to spin is by producers Calvin Harris, Chris Lake, Tom Staar, and Danny Verde, he says.)

“I had my first experience with another guy when I was 17,” says Ross. Coming out to his parents, he explains, “was not an easy experience. I was raised in the Mormon Church, so I came from a very religious background. The feeling I had in my heart is that this is who I was. I tried some counseling that the Mormon Church offered, but after a few times, I told my dad, ‘This isn’t working. I need to try things my way.’”

Ross moved to Montrose and began working as a barback, then a bartender, at Rich’s nightclub. “JD Arnold was deejaying there in 2000, and I would go up to the DJ booth and ask him hundreds of questions,” says Ross. “It was probably pretty annoying, but he was always happy to oblige me. I started deejaying in my living room; we would have people over after the bar closed. People would come and chill out; a lot of times, people would dance. I started meeting people in the industry.”

Meanwhile, Ross also taught gymnastics and tumbling at a gym that raised more than $3,000 to help him out when Ross was undergoing chemotherapy. “I would have about a week out of each month that I actually felt well enough to work, so I had a little income. If I wasn’t working, I would be very depressed, and I think it would take me longer to feel better. It definitely helped to get out and kinda live, you know.”

Eager to get through the chemotherapy, Ross sometimes went into the hospital a week earlier than planned to begin the next round. “I think they call it a ‘round’ because it’s like a boxing match—it beats you up,” he explains.

“As the rounds stack on top of each other, it’s harder to get through them; your body hasn’t fully recovered from the last one for you to feel well.”

After each treatment, Ross would go spend a few days of R&R at his sister’s house in Katy. “Today, my family is very excited about my life and the opportunities I have,” says Ross. “At first, they didn’t understand that being gay is not a choice. But who would ever choose to hurt your family? One of my exes was in our family pictures one year. It’s a non-issue.”

The DJ’s mother said she recently received a call from someone in Utah, home of the Mormon Church, asking her for advice to give the Utah woman’s neighbor. The neighbor’s sister, a lesbian, was bringing her partner to visit, and the neighbor was afraid the lesbian couple “would show a lot of affection.”

Mrs. Ross says, “[I told the woman], ‘I’m happy to give you advice, but are you sure you’re ready for it? Your neighbor is about to find out how Christian she really is. That’s all I can tell you.’ You can profess to be a Christian, but actions speak louder than words.”

In February, Ross met his current flame, Demetri Tavoulareas (who hails from Washington DC), when they were on a gay cruise. They have been enjoying a long-distance romance and visiting each other often, with Tavoulareas surprising Ross when he showed up at one of the DJ’s most thrilling gigs in September. Muniz had also accompanied Ross to West Hollywood, California, where he performed at The Abbey Food & Bar (which was twice voted “world’s best gay bar” by MTV Logo viewers).

The Abbey’s resident DJ, Dawna Montell, says, “I heard Joe play at a party a few years ago. He was really good, so I started talking to him. Over the years, we became friends. He lets me play at his club when I’m in Houston, and he plays at The Abbey when he’s in Los Angeles. I wish he was in town more. The morning after he spins, I get text messages from people telling me how great he plays.”

Upon his return to Houston, Ross enjoyed another welcomed surprise: his real-estate license became official September 14. “It’s definitely a big shift from how your brain works as a DJ, but I am excited to see where it goes,” he says. “I work seven days a week: I have four regular DJ jobs [Wednesday and Friday nights at F Bar, Saturday night and Sunday afternoons at South Beach], plus real estate and coaching gymnastics. Some days, I work three different jobs, some days two, but very rarely do I work just one.”

A highlight of 2015, says Ross, was deejaying for Bunnies on the Bayou. “It was my first time, and a lot of fun. At F Bar and South Beach, which have been such big goals of mine, sometimes when I’m working, it feels like a gift—to do what you love to do and get paid for it.”

Donalevan Maines is a regular contributor to OutSmart magazine.

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Don Maines

Donalevan Maines is a regular contributor to OutSmart Magazine.

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