There were three times during his 63rd year when Michael "Mick" Peterson believed he was going to die. The gay man (now 66) was repeatedly hospitalized due to a neurological autoimmune disease, Chronic Inflammatory Demyelinating Polyradiculoneuropathy. He attributes a feeling of purpose to helping bring him back from the brink.
"The most important thing I want to give is a sense of hope for people. Also, I want to make sure that people laugh," he says.
Peterson is accomplishing this mission as part of Old Gays, a quad of TikTok stars bringing global visibility to a demographic historically erased from (even queer) media: gay senior citizens. Over 8 million people follow Peterson, Robert Reeves (age 79), Bill Lyons (78), and Jessay Martin (69) on social media, with 1.5 billion cumulative views of the friends sharing stories from their past amid viral dances, skits, lip-synching, and colorful costume reveals. Comparisons to other famous (female) foursomes like The Golden Girls and Sex and the City abound in the comments.
Bill Lyons vintage silver set, MAISON MARGIELA blue and white suede high top sneakers; Jessay Martin vintage blue suit, SAINT LAURENT white button-down shirt, KITH X CONVERSE CHUCK TAYLOR ALL STAR high top sneakers; Robert Reeves LOUIS VUITTON blue and white denim set and t-shirt, CONVERSE CHUCK TAYLOR ALL STAR black high top sneakers; Mick Peterson MITHRIDATE white jacket, LOUIS VUITTON black pants and turtleneck, AMIRI sneakers, TALENT'S OWN necklace
While often light-hearted, the group -- all based in Cathedral City, Calif., near the desert gay mecca Palm Springs -- is unafraid to shy away from serious topics. When Peterson was at the E.R., for example, "we were so certain that he was going to die, that we filmed a TikTok goodbye to his memory and talked about it," reveals Reeves, who is also an accomplished artist. "I started a sculpture called 'Fire Child' because I always felt that he had this fire about him... and it was almost finished and then..."
"He decided not to go," Martin finishes.
There is an easy flow of conversation between the four men. A sentence that begins with one may run through each of them. For example, when asked to assess their lightning rise to fame: "The heavens opened up. We just happened to be in the right place, at the right time," Martin says.
"Because that was also the start of COVID, too. And a lot of people turned to social media," Lyons says.
"Yes, we became their families...and we've really stretched ourselves physically. I feel younger sometimes because I'm able to do it. And I think of Robert and Bill, 79, 78. Jesus, I hope I'm able to do this when I'm their age," Martin concludes.
Indeed, these gays have a packed schedule. Moments earlier, in between changes of designer clothes for their Out magazine photo shoot, the Old Gays recorded a TikTok video in the parking lot of Smashbox Studios in Culver City, Calif., with a younger female influencer, the singer and dancer Montana Tucker; she also has upward of 8 million followers on the platform.
Such collaborations with high-profile names are now common occurrences. Earlier this year, the Old Gays performed choreography with Paula Abdul to Lil Nas X's "Thats What I Want." And, "at one point, she looked at me and she said, 'You have no idea how big you are,'" Peterson recalls. "And I said, 'Yes, it's probably true -- until maybe we go out and really start meeting our fans en masse." (The group's fame, as mentioned, escalated exponentially during lockdown after their 2020 TikTok launch.)
The Old Gays, with the help of producer Ryan James Yezak, began creating videos for Grindr's YouTube channel in 2018, often in the form of hilarious roundtables where they dissected younger queer terms like "thirsty" and RuPaul's Drag Race viewing. They were an immediate hit -- particularly among younger viewers who had rarely heard from their LGBTQ+ forebears.
Obviously, internet fame was not a milestone any of the Old Gays anticipated for their careers. The oldest, Reeves, was born during World War II. He worked as a city planner before moving to Cathedral City in the '90s after an HIV diagnosis, believing -- like many other Palm Springs arrivals with HIV then -- that the move would be his last before death. He survived, which he credits to the power of the desert and the community he found there. The nexus of the group, Reeves has known Lyons for three decades, rented a room to Peterson for over eight years and counting, and lives across the street from Martin.
Martin is a relative newcomer to the friend group and was recruited via an informal audition; he pulled his car up next to Reeves while he was watering his plants. Reeves recalls, "I started talking to him through the window and I said, 'By the way, we are looking for...'"
"Diversity," finishes Martin, who is Black. "So I said, 'So you mean you need color?'" He handed Reeves his business card, and he was in. And the Old Gays were formed.
Today, the group is conscious of how their visibility and stories of survival give hope to those who may never have envisioned themselves thriving in or even reaching their golden years.
"Many of our LGBTQ followers are living in countries in which to be openly homosexual or whatever their identity is, they could be killed," Peterson notes. "So, they're living in an environment of extreme suppression that we can't comprehend. But so many times, we get comments from people saying, 'I came home. It was just a shitty day. It was frightening. And then I watched your videos and I forget my problems for just those few seconds.' And if we can do that every time we make a TikTok, for one person, that's why I'm here."
"The best part of it, we're reaching out to younger people, and we're finding out that they want to know so much about our past history and how we came about because it is so different to coming out today than it ever has been," Lyons adds.
Bill Lyons ETRO beige suit and shirt; Jessay Martin ATTICO white feather suit, Robert Reeves VIGGO TAILORING suit; Mick Peterson BALENCIAGA white button up shirt, LOUIS VUITTON black pants and turtleneck
Despite these differences -- the group expresses amazement for having witnessed marriage equality in their lifetime, for example -- the Old Gays reject comparisons to their younger years as the "Dark Ages," a remark sometimes lobbed in the comments sections of their videos. "They weren't dark, honey," attests Martin, a Tennessee native with religious roots whose background as a singer comes in handy during the group's many choreographed numbers.
There are several fond memories of San Francisco, in particular. After dealing with an antigay father who tried to out him, "I moved to the Bay Area in 1965 and spent 37 years up there," says Lyons, a SoCal native. "And that is when I really felt free, because as a young man in high school, and having sex with men and that kind of stuff, I had to be very, very careful. But it all worked out for the better. And moving to San Francisco was like heaven opened up. The wildest time in San Francisco to me was the '70s. It was so much fun. Everybody worked, everyone had a job, and they had money, and they were able to go out. It was just like New Year's Eve every weekend."
"It was a party," Peterson confirms. "When I was still at Irvine, [Calif.,] I used to pay the $70 round-trip on Air California from John Wayne Airport [in Orange County] to San Francisco International. And let's just say, I met a lot of porn stars and I had a wild time. It was so free. And just the difference in between myself and let's say, Bill or Bob's time. I came out to my parents when I was 24 and they were, for the most part, very accepting."
The party hasn't ended for the Old Gays, who share that they still have vibrant love lives. "I've had more sex in the desert than I ever did in Los Angeles," says Peterson, a bodybuilder who after leaving a long-term relationship at age 50 in L.A. has no present interest in pursuing another LTR. "And I think a lot of the people who are going to come and meet me are under the age of 35. Which surprises me because when I was their age, the last thing I wanted to do was to meet somebody in their 60s. So I find it kind of shocking and amusing at the same time."
"I've drank more coffee in Palm Springs than I did in L.A.," says Martin, another former Angeleno, in a cheeky reference to his uptick in dating. "The thing I've gotten is, 'Do you mind younger people?' I say, 'Honey, somebody's got to be younger, and somebody's got to be older.' I've kind of gotten on the other upper end." While seemingly more reserved than the other Gays -- who have helped push him outside his comfort zone -- Martin is also a self-professed "eyes and a lips freak."
Peterson shares some advice from his years of experience. "Relationships are a day-to-day thing," he says. "You have to work very, very, very hard at it and you have to stay very simpatico with the person you're with. I honestly believe that a good sexual relationship is, for us gay men, the basis of a relationship. The attractiveness holds, and I think that's where the love comes. If it is strictly companionship, I believe people diverge after a certain point."
"People forget to date," Martin says, adding, "Have that glass of wine, that pot, whatever brings you together, but you got to communicate and just be unexpected."
"You cannot call it maintenance, but make sure that you have time for yourselves," Peterson stresses. "And the hardest thing is not to bring your problems home unless your partner is willing to listen to you.... Your home together is your sanctuary."
Bill Lyons vintage silver set, MAISON MARGIELA blue and white suede high top sneakers, TALENT'S OWN necklace; Jessay Martin vintage blue suit, SAINT LAURENT white button down shirt, KITH X CONVERSE CHUCK TAYLOR ALL STAR high top sneakers; Robert Reeves LOUIS VUITTON blue and white denim set and t shirt, CONVERSE CHUCK TAYLOR ALL STAR black high top sneakers; Mick Peterson MITHRIDATE white jacket, LOUIS VUITTON black pants and turtleneck, AMIRI sneakers, TALENT'S OWN necklace
The Old Gays also share pearls of wisdom they would give to their younger selves. (They'll wax more on this topic in a planned upcoming book, tentatively titled, The Old Gays' Guide to the Good Life.) "Stop talking so much and listen," Martin says.
"Whatever you do, have a passion for it because that way it makes work just seem like a lot of fun," says Lyons, a former model who also worked in interior design and telecommunications.
"Travel more. Floss more... [and] have more sex," Peterson concludes. "Be educated about sex and go take it to the limit as far as you can go because you're only young once."