by Ruby Comer
Growing up in a small town can have its benefits…and it’s disadvantages. When it comes to facing the AIDS epidemic, there can be shortcomings.
In a small town, you might not get a well-informed education about HIV, and if you do, it may be biased and carry stigma. Yes, that can happen anywhere, but more probable in a rural area.
Case in point, actor Eric Dean. Born on Christmas Day—Hello, Jesus!—Eric was raised in Muldrow, Oklahoma. He had a single mom, Emma Sue Rogers, to whom he was devoted. He was the youngest of five, having three brothers and one sis. “My mother followed love,” he states to me matter-of-factly; thus the family lived in other small towns in Illinois, Michigan, Mississippi, Arkansas, and Arizona, as well as in Juarez, Mexico. No one knew at the time that his mother was bipolar. Eventually, as Eric developed into adulthood their relationship became strained.
Since Eric was gay, living in tiny townships was tremendously rough. He hid his true self for fear of being bashed or shamed. Naturally, the guy was terrified of HIV, which kept him deeper in the closet.
In his bedroom though, Eric had pasted photographs of his then crushes, Tom Selleck in Magnum, PI and the legendary George Michael. Eric admits having a craze for hairy chests…well, I can’t deny that for myself as well!
Receiving a partial theater scholarship, Eric attended the University of Tulsa, graduating
with a major in psychology and a minor in anthropology. Pride elated him as no one in his family had ever gone to college, let alone graduate! Good for you, chum.
Eric then moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico, and slid into the corporate world as a marketing manager for five years. Tormented by his unfulfilled dream of being an actor, he decided to relocate to Los Angeles in 1999 at the age of twenty-eight. Shortly thereafter he signed on with a commercial agent and began booking a stream of commercials. In between show biz gigs, in 2004, he co-founded a custom furniture and design services business, DAVINCI. The thespian’s résumé includes appearances in over thirty films, television, stage, and web series.
Eric’s grandmother was a dedicated fan of Days of Our Lives. While working in an L.A. restaurant, Dean made a connection who got him an audition for the renowned series. He was then cast and appeared in an “under 5” role. Even though he had only a few lines, his grandma was super-charged!
While still residing in Santa Fe, Eric met his soulmate, Tomas. Together they moved to the City of Angels, with two years in Mexico, living just outside Puerto Vallarta, where they were when COVID-19 stunned and silenced the world. Eric and Tomas returned to L.A. in the summer of last year.
Both are active in the HIV community, attending numerous fundraiser events through the years, and Tomas has biked in AIDS/LifeCycle (now the TogetheRide) twice. Of course Tomas had the full support of Eric, who was there at the end, greeting him with open arms and a broad bursting smile.
Ugh, I’m tired of Zoom calling. Plus today I feel lazy and don’t want to dress, fuss with my mane, or put on my greasepaint, so this old fashion girl talks to Eric on the horn. It’s an early summer afternoon and sparrows chirp in the Birch tree just out-side my Silver Lake window.
Ruby Comer: Hello. How are you Eric?! You’re in West Hollywood, correct?
Eric Dean: Hi Ruby! Good to hear from you on this lovely day. Yes, we’re right in the center of WeHo!
Ya know, I want to hear about your growing up, Eric.
Well, Ruby, we were dirt poor and lived in HUD housing. We received food stamps and government-issued commodities. Times were always tough in our household. My mom worked and did the best she could, but it was tough. She didn’t have an education and didn’t finish high school, so she worked anywhere and everywhere she could. Mom never made a lot of money and it was a constant struggle to make ends meet.
Wow. I’m sorry you had to go through that. What was it like to have a birthday and Christmas at the same time?
I never got two gifts. I received one gift for both Christmas and my birthday.
Is your mom still around?
[There’s a bit of a hush.] My mother just passed away this January 14. She was eighty-four, and would have been eighty-five in February. My mom was born on Leap Year. Technically, she would’ve been only 21.25 years old, barely legal enough to consume alcohol. [He chuckles brightly.]
I wish you light and love, my dear. Say, tell me about residing in Muldrow and
how it affected you being gay?
I was the only guy in choir. I mean, boys played sports; they didn’t sing. I loved to sing, Ruby, so imagine it then multiply that by ten! [Feeling empathy, I nod.] I didn’t have any guy friends until about tenth grade and was teased a lot, being called “faggot” and “sissy.” In middle school through high school, I was terrified to walk down the halls. I would literally get sick to my stomach and dreaded it every single day.
Oh, Eric, this hits my heartstrings. I…am…so… sorry. Unfortunately, I know many others who have been bullied as well. It’s an epidemic in our country. I hope soon they pass more laws. [I change gears rather precisely.] Were you taught about AIDS?
There was no HIV prevention let alone teen pregnancy prevention. AIDS was a pejorative. I was terrified of AIDS, Ruby. I didn’t know anything about it except that gay people “got it.” There was a boy two years younger than me, Ryan, who was rumored to have [acquired HIV]. I think he was a hemophiliac and that’s how he contracted it. It was never talked about openly. There was just speculation. It was horrible, Ruby.
I feel your pain, Eric….
One day, he just disappeared from school. I learned years later after living in California for a while through a good friend that he did have AIDS…and died. My friend added that she was told not to say he had AIDS. It was a big secret.
I internalized it all and never let anyone know how terrified I was every day of AIDS and being gay and being bullied.
It’s such an overwhelming heartbreaking situation, no two ways about it. Did you ever overcome that stigma?
I don’t think I ever have, truly, Ruby. However, I now live in California and I don’t feel the stigma here.
….a much happier place to be. I am biased about small towns because I was raised in one myself. I can tell you stories, and sometimes I will, dear reader. By the time you came of age in the mid-eighties, having sex could often kill you. How did all that play out for you?
I didn’t have sex! I was terrified. I had a few girlfriends but I never had intercourse. I couldn’t admit to myself that I was even gay, though I knew I was. [Eric inhales, conveying the seriousness of the situation.] Since I grew up so terrified of having sex and being gay, I never educated myself. If I had, someone might have found out that I was gay.
I get it Eric. Totally. Doesn’t that bring up an eerie point? Like you, those who are isolated and overcome with fear that they don’t learn about this dreadful disease. [Briefly, there’s a dead quiet.] Have you lost anyone to AIDS?
My clothing store manager, Fred Rogers, was an awesome guy. I admired him because he was himself and I liked how he treated people. He always made me laugh. I was drawn to him, not in a sexual way, but he was very handsome. He never told me that he was gay; however I knew. He was very thin and there were days that he would be out sick. Talking about him now brings a smile to my face.
How tender, Eric. Of course when you said his name, I instantly darted to Fred Rogers who was the famous children’s TV host of Mister Roger’s Neighborhood.
Uh, yes. I lost touch with him after college and never knew he died. I found out years later that he had passed away. When I began donating to AIDS fundraisers it was in his name.
How lovely. How old were you when you got HIV tested?
I never got tested solely for HIV. I have always been safe. When I got blood tests for life insurance or other blood work, they tested for HIV.
Tell about meeting Tomas.
We met in 1998 while I was living in Santa Fe and moonlighting as a bartender at the local gay bar, Paramount. Tomas came into the bar one night with two friends. In 2008, we were married on our ten-year anniversary, and was one of the 18K couples that were married before Prop 8 made it illegal.
CONGRATS! When you met, how did you guys broach the topic of STIs?
We didn’t really. [He breaks.] We didn’t talk about that stuff. We knew it existed, and we were careful. [Eric clears his throat.] I think I was too scared to talk about it. I felt like the more I knew the scarier it would be and almost like it would be easier to get.
I understand this train of thought….
I was so dumb, Ruby, when I was younger about educating myself about the disease. I fear, too, that if I educated myself, then people would know I was gay. I wasn’t comfortable being out professionally because it was still really frowned up-on in the entertainment industry. [He releases a breathy groan….] Crazy, right?
I know both you guys step up to the plate when help is needed. Where does that inspiration come from?
I try to do the right thing and give when I can. Being poor growing up, we weren’t raised to give money away. We just didn’t have any. When we gave, it was always to church. Charity has been something that I’ve learned to do in my adulthood.
My actions are small, Ruby, but every little bit helps.
Ruby Comer is an independent journalist from the Midwest who is happy to call Hollywood her home away from home. Reach her by e-mail at [email protected].