On a dry, sunny day in Cathedral City, Calif., four men in their 60s and 70s practice the choreography of Lizzo’s new song. As “About Demon Time” at half tempo echoes from the poolside courtyard, it becomes clear that learning these dance moves can take longer than anticipated. Hand gestures above the head keep some people tripping, while the transition from two middle fingers in the air to a less confrontational move demands that they take it over the top. Again. Frequently. Until they nail it, only these four old lesbians can show off the charm.
The four have built up a 7 million-strong fandom on TikTok, collaborating on videos with the likes of Paula Abdul and counting celebrities like Rihanna among their followers. Crowds of fans throng to read the comments on his post, who find joy in watching Michael “Mick” Peterson, Robert Reeves, Bill Lyons and Jesse Martin. The self-proclaimed Old Gay has evolved into a vision of pride that is rarely front and center with youth-focused floats or parades.
Whether they’re recreating an iconic Christmas “Mean Girls” dance, wowing audiences with stories from their past, pushing back against rigid gender norms or, yes, dancing with Lizzo’s latest bop Well, Old Gay is showing his fans what it means to be graceful in his own way.
Before these four became unlikely social media superstars, they were living lives they could never fathom. “I went into the desert thinking I was going to die in a year or two,” Robert tells me once we leave Lizzo behind and sit down while they all catch their breath. “Because in San Francisco” [in the late 1980s] I found out that I am HIV positive. And my whole circle of friends was dead. … But when I came here, there is something about the desert that brings life to you. The desert kind of rejuvenated me and I just started doing my art. And I didn’t die.”
Bill faced a similar situation: “I didn’t think I’d live to 40,” he recalls. “I thought I was living life so fast, I worried it was going to catch up with me very quickly.” It was not; The thing that affected him badly was the 2008 financial crisis. They lost their home and moved to senior housing a few blocks away from Robert’s. Mick and Robert are roommates; Jesse lives across the street.
The Old Guess began as a period of love and an inside joke. Then the group’s social media manager Ryan James Yezak (whose now-husband, John Bates, had once rented a room from Robert) helped turn the nickname into a full-fledged phenomenon. The Old Gaze started online as a lengthy YouTube video (hosted on Grindr’s channel) of Mick, 66, Robert, 78, Bill, 78, and Jesse, 68, talking candid and hilarious conversations about their experiences. shared in.
Then gradually evolved into the curator of massive generational knowledge – what once shared among friends has now reached millions of strangers. Their coming-of-age stories, past relationships and, perhaps most important, YouTube videos on HIV (Mick and Robert have both spoken openly about their respective diagnoses) elevate the name of their cheeky group. Here’s what aging meant as a gay man in the 21st century, maybe, maybe. Their stories illuminated more than half of the history of gay life, through protests and parties, historic political victories and continuing culture wars.
The Old Gay had become a bridge between generations; They offered a piece of bizarre history made out of meat. This history lesson was not murky or black and white. It was funny and cheerful and lively. Videos where he reacted to contemporary queer culture – like when he watched “RuPaul’s Drag Race” For the first time or when he saw the thrilling spectacle of the Lil Nas X video – urging viewers to build their own inter-generational relationship. Old Gay delivers lessons that continue to be realized in time: Living authentically is key life advice at any age.
The move towards making videos for TikTok, an online space that thrives on lip-sync videos, viral dances and quirky challenges, may seem like a departure from the early ethos of Old Gay. But Ryan saw something else.
A shrewd director-slash-stylist-slash-social media manager, the 35-year-old’s push for TikTok was first driven by a desire to give audiences a chance to see older gays behind the scenes. Slowly, he began to take control of what resonated: 13.9 million views showing photos of his young children, “Sexuality? Isn’t there only one?” The meme garnered 35.2 million views and estimates that “sliding into someone’s DMs” meant 7.5 million views.
On TikTok, Old Gay wasn’t leaving behind his more reflective content; They were diversifying – and that would sometimes require, as they would soon find out, some choreography, lip syncing, and in their move. When Ryan first pitched the idea his way, not everyone was on board.
“I had a strong feeling that this was not the direction we were going to go,” recalls Robert.
“He was very disappointed,” Mick explains.
When he saw the final product — and, more obviously, the reaction it was — Robert was moved by the support he saw for his playful take. It was proof that sometimes just putting a smile on someone’s face is enough; And, perhaps more to the point, that four gay men who are flirty and cranky can still let their authenticity shine through, even while lip syncing.
Mick, who is currently being treated for an autoimmune disorder called chronic immune thrombocytopenia, loves to hear from his various nurses how TikTok videos make his days so much brighter. “Just to note that you brought a little hope and joy. It’s awesome.
“But really,” he says, “I believe that my life is no longer mine. So, as long as I’m here, I’ll keep doing it. I really have no need to go back to my past life.” No desire, for its good or bad. Here I am. Here I am.”
This is not to say that it has been smooth sailing. The pressure to create ever-fresh content has pushed older gays to their limits at times. At one point, Ryan asked him if he would do OK dropping trout for TikTok videos – a suggestion that some took note of, but proved to be quite successful.
“When we started, we had to learn to grow together,” recalls Jesse. “Ryan’s too young. We’re too big. And so we had to learn too, because we kept telling Ryan we couldn’t do that. But he wasn’t getting that because he’s never been around big guys before.” When we say no, it’s not, you know? And it’s not because we don’t want to. It’s because we can’t.” However, in due course, the self-described “tough-headed men” went from saying no to much to opening themselves up to what might bring them a yes.
“And it’s made it so much easier and more fun,” Jesse says with a smile. “I go home smiling. Exhausted. But smiling.”
Speaking of exhaustion, Ryan admitted that he had to get back on the punishing rhythm he had been working on last year (for months he had been posting daily). He is already looking to the future. Talk of a potential documentary looms. Just as they are all cautiously optimistic when they first hit the social media maelstrom. For example, Ryan doesn’t know how he’ll feel if he’s not behind the camera, while Jesse is afraid of exposure. A private person, he is wary of what the wider platform will ask of him – even as he admits to opening up about his family and online trust has been a net positive. Being so weak has also encouraged him and others.
How else to explain the four’s willingness to donate as colorful wrestling solos and dancing, balloons on hands, another song by the pool, this time Lato’s “Big Energy”, played over and over again through portable speakers ?
When Ryan finally entangles them on their trail, the four come to light. It doesn’t matter if they’ve been on it for hours or it’s oppressively hot (just looking at them from my shaded spot makes me sweaty). When the camera is rolling – and it will take some time before they are usable – Mick, Robert, Bill and Jesse are in their element.
They happily mug for the camera. They blow up kisses and lose themselves in the music. When pointed at Ryan’s iPhone camera, he is happily living his best life.
“He pushes us in a good way,” Jesse says. “And it just energizes us. He’s helping us live.”