“If you want to call it a community, it would also include basically everybody who lives on this street.”
Reeves recalls living in San Francisco in the early 1980s at the height of the AIDS epidemic. “A couple of years after I moved there, you started hearing all these rumors about the ‘gay cancer,’” he says. “And then slowly, one by one, my close family there started dying.”2 In 1987, he discovered he was HIV positive and moved out to the desert to spend his remaining days. “I thought I was going to be dead in two years,” he says. Once he was there, however, his T cells started improving, and his viral load became undetectable. “The desert gave me life,” he says.
Lyons moved to Palm Springs in 2003, where he was introduced to Reeves at a movie night that Lyons was hosting at his home. They soon realized they had met before—in San Francisco in the mid-1980s. “We became really good friends,” says Lyons, “and have been that way ever since.”
Lyons loves being both an old gay and an Old Gay, as well as having the elder statesman status that has come with the group’s fame. He also remembers a less progressive time, when it was often much tougher for young men to come out to their parents. “You just didn’t do that back then,” he says. “[My parents] probably would have sent me to some fancy psychiatrist in Beverly Hills to try to stop it.” And then there were all the cops and city leaders who tried to drive gay men like Lyons out of Laguna Beach or bust them as they cruised LA’s Griffith Park. “A lot of people have said that hearing what we were up against when we were coming out has made it easier for them to come out to their parents,” he says.
The four men have created a special form of community out here in the desert, the roots of which go back decades and extend far beyond the home that Reeves and Peterson share. “If you want to call it a community, it would also include basically everybody who lives on this street,” says Peterson, a former bodybuilder who moved to the desert in 2012. Here, he says, people celebrate holidays together and look out for each other.
Then there’s the larger community of online fans who await the group’s latest video. The Old Gays currently have nearly 11 million followers on TikTok. When asked what sorts of questions he gets from his fans, Peterson rattles off the top three: How often do you work out? How big is it? Can I see? “There are a lot of people who want to meet me,” he says, smiling.
Even now, the level of interest can sometimes take him by surprise. “There seems to be a great curiosity in our age group from the younger generations—Gen Z, Gen X, the millennials,” he says. “Whereas, the last thing I wanted to do when I was in my 20s was to be with a 60-year-old man.”
Apart from the love the four have for each other, and the groovy dance routines, a big part of the group’s appeal is the stories the Old Gays have gathered over the decades. These speak to a collective memory while remaining acutely personal. Like the time Martin came out to his mother after she kept asking him when he was going to get married, and how he wrote her a letter about it (he was on the road performing with a gospel group at the time), and how his brother and sister read the letter to her, and how his mom cried because she couldn’t be there with him. Or the time Lyons made love to a man for the first time, in Laguna Beach, and how dirty and uncomfortable it had made him feel until he realized that all those people who had been saying that what he was doing was a sin—maybe they didn’t know everything after all.
If you ask the Old Gays what they like about all of this—the meetups with celebrities, the late-found fame, all that dancing—they’ll talk about how it’s nice to have fun things to do at an age when fun activities of any sort tend to become scarce. But more than that, what they cherish is the family they have created, their chosen family that they care for, and which cares for them.3
The day before, Martin had been in the hospital, where he wasn’t able to see anyone. “It was a really hard day for me,” he says, “because I was totally alone.” Phone calls and texts with the group sustained him. “We’re family,” he says. “They’re here for me, and I want to be there for them.” He looks over at Lyons and gives him a quick peck on the lips.