The Old Gays TikTok is an absolute delight full of pride
On a dry, sunny day in Cathedral City, Calif., four men in their 60s and 70s practice choreography to Lizzo’s new song. As “About Damn Time” at half-speed echoes through the poolside courtyard, it becomes clear that learning these dance moves may take longer than anticipated. Swirly above-the-head hand gestures keep tripping up some of the guys, while a transition from two middle fingers in the air to a less confrontational move demands they take it from the top. Again. Over and over again. Until they nail it, oozing charm as only these four old gays can.
The foursome have built a 7-million-strong fandom on TikTok, collaborating on videos with the likes of Paula Abdul and counting celebrities such as Rihanna among their followers. To read the comments on their posts is to encounter a throng of fans who find joy in watching Michael “Mick” Peterson, Robert Reeves, Bill Lyons and Jessay Martin let loose. The self-proclaimed Old Gays have evolved into a vision of pride that’s seldom front and center on youth-focused floats or parades.
Whether they’re re-creating an iconic Christmas “Mean Girls” dance, regaling viewers with tales from their past, pushing back against rigid gender norms or, yes, dancing along to Lizzo’s latest bop, the Old Gays are showing their fans what it means to age gracefully in their own way.
Even before these four became unlikely social media superstars, they were leading lives they once couldn’t fathom. “I moved to the desert thinking I was gonna be dead in a couple of years,” 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 learned I was HIV-positive. And my whole circle of friends was dead. … But when I came here, there’s something about the desert that brings life to you. The desert kind of reinvigorated 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 till 40,” he recalls. “I thought I was living such a fast life I was worried it was going to catch up with me real quick.” It didn’t; what did hit him hard was the 2008 financial crisis. He lost his home and moved into senior housing a few blocks from Robert’s house. Mick and Robert are roommates; Jessay lives across the street.
The Old Gays started out as a term of endearment and an inside joke. Then Ryan James Yezak, the group’s social media manager (whose now-husband, John Bates, once rented a room from Robert) helped transform the nickname into a full-blown phenomenon. The Old Gays began online as long-form YouTube videos (hosted on Grindr’s channel) of Mick, 66, Robert, 78, Bill, 78, and Jessay, 68, sharing their experiences in candid and hilarious conversations.
The foursome then slowly evolved into curators of generational knowledge on a massive scale — what once was shared anecdotally among friends now reached millions of strangers. YouTube videos on their coming-out stories, past relationships and, perhaps most crucially, HIV (both Mick and Robert have spoken openly about their respective diagnoses) elevated their cheeky group name. Here was what aging as a gay man in the 21st century was, could be, had been. Their stories illuminated more than half a century’s worth of history of gay life, through protests and parties, through chaste kisses and hot hookups, through historic political wins and continued culture wars.
The Old Gays had become a bridge across generations; they offered a slice of queer history made flesh. This history lesson wasn’t musty or in black-and-white. It was funny and cheerful and alive. The videos where they reacted to contemporary queer culture — like when they watched “RuPaul’s Drag Race” for the first time or when they witnessed the thrilling spectacle of a Lil Nas X video — urged viewers to make intergenerational connections of their own. The Old Gays offered lessons that continued to feel timely: Living authentically is prime life advice at any age.
The move toward creating videos for TikTok, an online space that thrives on lip-sync videos, viral dances and quirky challenges, may seem like a departure from the Old Gays’ early ethos. But Ryan saw something more.
A canny director-slash-stylist-slash-social media manager, the 35-year-old’s push for TikTok was driven first by a desire to give audiences a chance to get a behind-the-scenes look at the Old Gays. Slowly, they began getting a handle on what resonated: Showing pictures of their younger selves got 13.9 million views, camping up the “Sexuality? Isn’t there only one?” meme snagged 35.2 million views and guessing what “sliding into someone’s DMs” means netted 7.5 million views.
On TikTok, the Old Gays weren’t leaving their more reflective content behind; they were diversifying — and that would sometimes require, as they’d soon find out, some choreography, lip syncing and pep in their step. When Ryan first floated the idea their way, not all were on board.
“I had strong feelings that this wasn’t the direction we were supposed to be going in,” Robert recalls.
“He was very despondent,” Mick clarifies.
When he saw the final product — and, more tellingly, the reaction it garnered — Robert was moved by the support he saw pour in for their playful takes. It was proof that sometimes, bringing a smile to someone’s face could be enough; and, perhaps more to the point, that four out gay men who are flirty and raunchy could still let their authenticity shine, even while lip syncing.
Mick, who’s currently being treated for an autoimmune disorder called chronic immune thrombocytopenia, loves hearing from his various nurses about how the TikTok videos make their days that much brighter. “Just to notice that you brought a little hope and joy. It’s incredible.”
“But really,” he adds, “I believe my life is no longer my own. So, however long I am here for, I’ll be doing this. I don’t really have any desire to go back to my previous life, for the good or the bad of it. This is where I am. I am here.”
Which is not to say it has been smooth sailing. The pressure to create ever-fresher content has pushed the Old Gays, at times, to their limits. At one point, Ryan asked them if they’d be OK dropping trou for a TikTok video — a suggestion some balked at but proved to be quite successful.
“When we started, we had to learn to grow together,” Jessay recalls. “Ryan’s a lot younger. We’re a lot older. And so we had to learn too, because we kept telling Ryan that we couldn’t do it. But he wasn’t getting that because he’d never been around older people before that. When we say no, it’s a no, you know? And it’s not because we don’t want to. It’s because we can’t.” In due time, though, the self-described “hard-headed men” went from saying no a lot to opening themselves to what a yes could bring them.
“And that’s made it so much easier and more fun,” Jessay beams. “I go home grinning. Exhausted. But grinning.”
Speaking of exhaustion, Ryan admits he’s had to pull back on the punishing rhythm they’d gotten used to last year (for months they were posting daily). Already he’s looking to the future. Talk of a potential docuseries looms. Just as when they dove headfirst into the social media maelstrom, they’re all cautiously optimistic. Ryan, for instance, doesn’t know how he’ll feel if he’s not behind the camera, while Jessay is scared about the exposure. A private person, he’s wary of what the wider platform will demand of him — even as he admits opening up about his family and faith online has been a net positive. Being so vulnerable also has emboldened him and the others.
How else to explain the willingness of all four to don colorful wrestling singlets and dance, balloons on hand, by the pool as another song, this time Latto’s “Big Energy,” plays over and over through a portable speaker?
When Ryan finally wrangles them onto their marks, all four light up. It doesn’t matter that they’ve been at it for hours or that it’s oppressively hot (merely watching them from my shaded spot leaves me beaded with sweat). When the camera is rolling — and it will be a while before they get a usable take — Mick, Robert, Bill and Jessay are in their element.
They giddily mug for the camera. They blow kisses and lose themselves in the music. They are joyfully living their best lives during those stints when Ryan’s iPhone camera is pointed at them.
“He pushes us in a good way,” Jessay says. “And it just energizes us. He’s helping us to live.”