The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Black, gay and graying gracefully in love

Mike Petross, left, and Phil Pugh hold hands outside of their home in Detroit on June 22. (Jamal Jordan/For The Washington Post)
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The idea of growing old as a gay man used to terrify me. I simply had no concept of what longevity looked like for gay Black men.

My fear wasn’t irrational. A look at statistics paints a bleak image: LGBTQ seniors have worse mental and physical health outcomes than their straight and cisgender counterparts, are more likely to avoid or delay health care, have less money saved for retirement, have a harder time finding (and pay more for) retirement living and nursing home care, and as a result of weaker “informal support networks” like friends, living family and children, LGBTQ seniors are much more likely to suffer from loneliness and social isolation.

Widespread representation of lesbian, gay — and to a lesser extent, bisexual and transgender — people in media have only recently become anything near “mainstream.” And for much of my life, it seemed that older LGBTQ people didn’t even exist. It was nearly impossible to find images of them, especially older LGBTQ people of color, and particularly images of health, love and joy.

Until I met Mike and Phil.

Phil Pugh and Mike Petross, thriving at 79 and 75, respectively, serve as strong models for younger queer people.

“We just want to let young gay people know that they can have something to look forward to when they get old,” Phil said to me on the second-floor deck of their American Foursquare on Detroit’s West side, one of the greatest prides of their 50-year relationship. “We’ve seen so many people kill themselves — with liquor, with drugs, with sex — because they thought they didn’t have anything to live for.”

“Here we are!” Mike exclaims, suddenly, between puffs of his joint, “Two old Black queens!”

Phil smirked as he watched Mike collapse in his chair, laughing at his own joke, and as we settled into a calm stillness, we began to recount how much life has changed since our last conversation, on this same patio, two years ago.

I first met Mike and Phil in 2019 while reporting my book, “Queer Love in Color.” We were introduced by Curtis Lipscomb, the executive director of LGBT Detroit (also featured in the book), who, hearing me lament the dearth of older gay men in my life, insisted that I meet this couple. He described them as “vital” to the city’s gay Black community, and it was easy for me to understand why: I spent my teen years in Detroit. I came out of the closet there. And for so many years, I could never imagine myself growing old, being healthy, in love and happy in this city, like Mike and Phil. It would’ve changed my life to meet someone like them when I was younger.

After our first meeting, I posted a snippet of their story and a portrait to Twitter, where it went viral (and still pops up in random posts from time to time). Among the tens of thousands of likes and retweets, I was most struck by the comments from younger people, the people who told me that they had never seen a version of love like this before.

Now, as I’m explaining how Twitter works and how many likes they got, Phil looks at me intently, somewhat confused, but beaming: “That’s all I’ve wanted in my life,” he says. “We’ve dedicated our lives to making sure younger gay Black people know that they can grow old, and that they’ll have something to live for.”

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Mike and Phil first met at church — the Shrine of the Black Madonna, on Detroit’s East Side — on Easter Sunday in 1961.

“I wore my hot red pants,” Mike says, laughing mischievously.

“Yes, he did,” Phil confirmed. “The Lord knew he needed help. I was sent as his guardian angel. He was being too wild, but I’m glad I was there to calm him down.”

It was, for both of them, the first day with a new congregation. Mike had recently moved to the city and was looking for community. Phil had lived in Detroit all his life and was going to church because he loved it and always had. Before that day, however, their lives could not have been more different.

“First of all, I’ve been out my whole life,” Phil says, recounting his upbringing. He had a gay uncle that his entire family “held up on a pedestal,” so he knew from a young age that being gay was accepted in his family. “The few times anyone ever made fun of me, it rarely impacted me, because being gay was affirmed by the people in my life who meant the most to me.”

In high school, his best friend was a football player and drag queen. “He could run through you like nothing,” Phil says. So he didn’t encounter too much trouble in his teenage years. “People gave me s---, but people will always give you s---. What I learned, from a very early age, is that you have to be strong in who you are, what you are and what you think you want to be.”

Mike let out a sigh, and for the first time since I’d met him, he wasn’t smiling. He doesn’t want to spend too much time on his backstory and offers me only the following: “I grew up in Flint, Michigan, a homophobic city, was repressed. Then I moved to Detroit in ’61, and I was in heaven ... I loved it.”

On that Easter morning in 1961, Mike was 21 and living in his grandmother’s house, while Phil was 25 and in the last days of a 10-year relationship. (Phil was not clear about why this relationship ended, but Mike took this as an opportunity to suggest, “the red pants? They worked.”)

Soon after meeting, they moved in together.

The next decade was a whirlwind. Bored with his administrative job at the Chrysler Foundation, a particularly cushy gig for a Black man in 1960s Detroit, Phil decided to quit. With their newfound freedom, they eventually ended up renting a farmhouse. “Eighty-five acres of land,” Mike recalls. “Ninety dollars a month. And we stayed there for 10 years.”

On my second visit to their home, Mike led me to a wooden chest in their basement, and pulled out multiple photo albums filled with Polaroids from that time on the farm. Later, over a dinner of spaghetti, fried catfish and red wine, the pair walked me through pages and pages of images featuring their family and friends, the Afro-crowned and bell-bottom-clad visitors to what they called their “sanctuary outside of Detroit.” Their decade on the farm, living on unemployment insurance, and then later their income from odd jobs, cemented a community-building drive in the men that never went away.

I asked the men about the best times of their lives, and, without pausing, Mike exclaimed: “We used to own a business!” Through the ’70s and ’80s, the couple owned a “New American-style” restaurant called the Oakland Express — and for a while, an adjacent antique shop — in Detroit.

“We were a bougie restaurant in the middle of the hood,” Phil recalls, cracking up at the contrasting image. “But we lasted for 10 years.”

With Phil as the chef and Mike as the host/waiter/people person, they tried to make their restaurant feel like a neighborhood hub. The establishment soon became a popular spot for churchgoers, who wanted to hang out in a welcoming space that wasn’t a bar.

There is one set of patrons, however, whose memory haunts the couple to this day: In the weeks after they first went into business in the 1980s, a group of eight gay teenagers came to the restaurant every Sunday. But after a while the friends eventually stopped showing up. Months later, Phil ran into one of the young men while grocery shopping and discovered why. “They went to one particular church in Detroit and one day the minister had singled that group out,” he says. “He talked about them so badly in the church, saying horrible things about homosexuality. One of them ended up committing suicide two weeks later.”

The group of friends started to drift apart soon after.

This moment provided a lesson that has become a guiding principle for Mike and Phil as they’ve settled into old age: “More of us older gays need to talk to younger people like you,” Phil tells me. “There’s no one around to teach us about love. To teach us about health. To offer us support. We need to do that for each other.”

Settled into retirement, the gentlemen dedicate much of their time to volunteering, working with organizations like LGBT Detroit to help build a more equitable future for young queer Black people in the city. And, as their neighborhood rapidly changes around them, they continue to pour love into their home, still obsessing over the layout of the wicker furniture set on the deck, or the contrast of a bright red wall and a tufted, cream-colored linen sofa in their sun room.

It’s been years since I first made photos with Mike and Phil, but I still revisit my early images of them from time to time, an artifact from the day that I met my first older gay Black couple. The power of media to shape how we view ourselves and what is possible for our future is well-studied and documented, but I still feel an inexplicable joy, a profound sense of relief, to be able to sit with Mike and Phil, watching them love and support each other after 50 years, and think, One day, that could be me.

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