The Old Gays TikTok is an absolute delight full of pride

On a sunny, dry day in Cathedral City, California, four men in their 60s and 70s practice choreography to Lizzo’s new song. As “Damn Time” at half-speed reverberated through the poolside yard, it became clear that learning these jumps could take longer than expected. The overhead hand swing gestures repeatedly tripped up some guys, while the transition from two middle fingers in the air to a less confrontational move required them to do it all over again. Again. Repeat. Until they nailed it, oozing the charm that only these four old gays could do.

The quartet has built a strong 7 million fandom on TikTok, collaborating on videos featuring people like Paula Abdul and counting celebrities like Rihanna among their followers. Reading the comments on their posts is to encounter a crowd of fans who find joy in watching Michael “Mick” Peterson, Robert Reeves, Bill Lyons and Jessay Martin loose. These self-proclaimed Old Gays have evolved into a vision of pride that rarely comes to the fore and focuses on youth-focused parades or floats.

Whether they’re recreating the iconic Christmas dance “Mean Girls,” wowing viewers with stories from their past, pushing back against rigid gender norms or, yes, Dancing to Lizzo’s latest bop, Old Gays is showing fans just that. means to age gracefully in their own right.

Even before these four failed to become social media superstars, they were leading lives they once couldn’t understand. “I moved to the desert and thought I was going to die in a few years,” Robert told me as we left Lizzo behind and sat down while we all breathed. “Because in San Francisco [in the late 1980s] I learned that I was HIV positive. And my entire group of friends died. … But when I get here, there’s something about the desert that gives you life. The desert kind of revived me and I just started making my art. And I didn’t die”.

Bill faced a similar situation: “I didn’t think I was going to live to 40,” he recalls. “I think I’m living a life too fast and I worry that it will catch up to me really quickly.” It did not; What hit him hard was the 2008 financial crisis. He lost his home and moved into a luxury apartment block a few blocks from Robert’s. Mick and Robert are roommates; Jessay lives across the street.

Old Gays began as a term of endearment and an inside joke. Then, Ryan James Yezak, the group’s social media director (current husband, John Bates, used to rent out Robert’s room) helped turn the moniker into a celebrity phenomenon. Old Gays got its start online as long-form YouTube videos (hosted on Grindr’s channel) featuring Mick, 66, Robert, 78, Bill, 78, and Jessay, 68, sharing their experiences in events. frank and funny conversation.

The quartet then gradually evolved into large-scale generational knowledge managers – what was once shared anecdotally among friends has now reached millions of strangers. YouTube videos about their upcoming stories, past relationships, and perhaps most importantly, HIV (both Mick and Robert have spoken openly about their respective diagnoses) raised their cheeky group name. This is what the aging of a gay man in the 21st century may have been. Their stories illuminate the more than half-century history of gay life, through protests and parties, through chaste kisses and hot intercourse, through major victories. history and the ongoing culture wars.

Old Gays have been the bridge for generations; they give a piece of peculiar history that has been made of flesh and blood. This history lesson is not moldy or black and white. It’s funny and fun and lively. Videos in which they react to contemporary gay culture – like when they watch “RuPaul’s Drag Race” for the first time or when they witness the thrilling spectacle of a Lil Nas X video – prompting viewers to make their own intergenerational connections. The Old Gays offers lessons that continue to feel trendy: Being authentic is top life advice at any age.

Four snapshots show elderly gay men wearing sunglasses, three in animal print shirts, one in just shorts.

The quartet then gradually evolved into large-scale generational knowledge managers – what was once shared anecdotally among friends has now reached millions of strangers. Clockwise from top left: Bill Lyons, Mick Peterson, Jessay Martin and Robert Reeves.

(David Vassalli / For The Times)

The move towards creating videos for TikTok, an online space that thrives on lip-syncing videos, viral dances and quirky challenges, seems like a departure from the original ethos of TikTok. Old Gays. But Ryan saw something more than that.

As a social media manager, director – stylist – gossip, the 35-year-old’s push for TikTok is first and foremost a desire to give audiences a chance to get a behind-the-scenes look. about Old Gays. Slowly, they began to process what resonated: The display of photos of their younger selves received 13.9 million views, capturing the attention of the audience. “Sex? Isn’t there just one? ” The meme has racked up 35.2 million views, and guess what “sliding into someone’s DM” means 7.5 million views.

On TikTok, the Old Gays didn’t leave their more reflective content behind; they’re diversifying – and that will sometimes require, as they’ll soon find out, some choreography, lip-syncing, and lip-syncing in their stride. When Ryan first put ideas their way, not all of them fit.

“I had a strong feeling that this was not the direction we had to go,” Robert recalls.

“He was very frustrated,” Mick explained.

When he saw the final product – and more specifically, the reaction it got – Robert was moved by the support he saw for their playful stunts. It’s proof that sometimes, bringing a smile to someone’s face is enough; and, perhaps to a greater extent, that four gay men who are habitually flirtatious and passionate can still show their authenticity, even while lip-syncing.

Mick, who is currently being treated for an autoimmune disorder known as chronic immune thrombocytopenia, would love to hear from his various nurses sharing how TikTok videos make their days brighter. much. “Only to notice that you have brought a little hope and joy. Unbelievable.”

“But really,” he added, “I believe my life is no longer my own. So as long as I’m here, I’ll do this. I really don’t have any desire to go back to my previous life, for better or worse. This is where I am. I’m here.”

Which doesn’t mean it has been smooth sailing. The pressure to create increasingly fresh content has pushed Old Gays, at times, to their limits. At one point, Ryan asked them if they would agree to skip a TikTok video – a suggestion that some people disagree with but has proven to be quite successful.

“When we started, we had to learn to grow together,” recalls Jessay. “Ryan is much younger. We are much older. And so we had to learn, too, because we kept telling Ryan we couldn’t do it. But he doesn’t understand that because he has never been around older people before. When we say no, it’s no, you know? And not because we don’t want to. That’s because we can’t. In due time, however, self-described “stubborn men” have gone from saying little to being open to what a yes can do for them.

“And that makes it so much easier and so much more fun,” says Jessay. “I came home grinning. Exhausted. But grin.”

Speaking of burnout, Ryan admits he has to get back to the punishing rhythm they got used to last year (for months they posted daily). He is looking to the future. Talk about a looming pool of potential documents. Like when they dive headfirst into social media, they are cautiously optimistic. Ryan, for example, doesn’t know how he would feel if he weren’t behind the camera, while Jessay dreads the exposure. A private person, he’s wary of what the broader platform will ask of him – even as he admits it’s a positive thing to be open about his family and faith online. . Being so hurt has also encouraged him and others.

How else to explain the willingness of all four to play colorful wrestling and dancing, balloons in hand, poolside as another song, this time Latto’s “Big Energy,” plays. playback through portable speakers?

When Ryan finally wraps them in their marks, all four of them light up. It doesn’t matter if they’ve been there for hours or if it’s too hot (just looking at them from my shade makes me sweat). As the cameras are rolling – and it will be a while before they get a useable photo – Mick, Robert, Bill and Jessay will be in their element.

They enjoy the cup in front of the camera. They blow kisses and bask in the music. They’re happily living their best lives during those times when Ryan’s iPhone camera is pointed at them.

“He motivates us in a good way,” Jessay said. “And it just energizes us. He is helping us live.”

Old Gays photographed, sitting at one of the group members' homes. Paintings and sculptures in the background.

“I believe my life is no longer my own,” Mick said. “So as long as I’m here, I’ll do this. I really don’t have any desire to go back to my previous life, for better or worse. This is where I am. I’m here.”

(David Vassalli / For The Times) The Old Gays TikTok is an absolute delight full of pride

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