After the death of his longtime partner in the late 1990s, Paul Ray didn’t think he would ever love again. “I gave up,” he says. “I never wanted to go through anything like that ever again.”
The Cape Cod native purchased an old RV and lived a nomadic life, taking on consulting jobs in different locales. Two years later, at the end of 1999, he traveled to Ocala to visit a friend. It was a trip that would forever change his life, as it’s when he first met his future husband.
Paul met Wesley while shopping at Walmart with his friend – it turns out the individual he was visiting was a mutual friend. “We just hit it off,” Paul says. “It’s a fun story, meeting in a Walmart in Ocala. Usually, I tell the joke that he was a markdown. Then he says, no, he was a return.”
He invited Wesley to dinner – he made vegetarian lasagna – and their relationship moved quickly. “We met and it clicked right away,” Wesley says.
Paul adds, “It was like we were best friends as soon as we met.”
Just weeks after meeting, though, Paul was offered a job in Silicon Valley. Wesley decided to take a chance and go to California with him.
“I went with him knowing that if it didn’t work out, I could go home,” he recalls.
The couple has been together ever since. For nearly nine years, they traveled the country together. “From California to Massachusetts and everywhere in between,” Paul says.
Eventually, they wanted to settle down somewhere. Since Wesley was born and raised in St. Petersburg, they often visited Florida. During these trips, Paul discovered the city of Gulfport and fell in love. It reminded him of home.
“It’s very much like a lot of the small communities on Cape Cod,” he says. “I fell in love with the community. I fell in love with the people.”
They moved to Gulfport in 2009 and immediately became involved in the community. Paul is the first openly gay man on Gulfport City Council and currently serves as vice mayor.
The couple loves the Gulfport community so much that they hosted a public celebration of their 20 years together and a vow renewal ceremony. Originally, they had a quick marriage by justice of the peace in July 2009 while visiting Massachusetts for his mother’s funeral. It was one of the few states that allowed same-sex marriage at the time.
“It was one of those, ‘Hey, let’s get married.’ We signed the paperwork and went home,” Paul says. “We didn’t even understand what a wedding was until recently. After 20 years together, we decided to throw a party for the city of Gulfport and all of our friends.”
On Nov. 9, the 20th anniversary of the date they met, they held their vow renewal ceremony on the beach in downtown Gulfport, followed by a Hawaiian-themed wedding reception at Salty’s bar.
The public wedding and vow renewal “sends a really nice message to the community,” Paul says. “It’s significant to have been together for 20 years … It’s good for people to see that same-sex couples, and straight couples, can stay together a really long time. Gay or straight, it’s wonderful.”
Wesley adds, “After 20 years, renewing our vows means a lot.”
Marriage Date: July 13, 2009
Vow Renewal and Wedding Date: Nov. 9, 2019
Venue: Gulfport beach, Salty’s Gulfport Bar
Officiant: Bill Yanson and Jackie Kreuter
Entertainment: Double M Band
Caterer: Smokin’ J’s Real Texas BBQ, Island Flavors and Tings, Gulf Coast Seafood Florida
Photo By: Larry Busby