Gulfport city council member Paul Ray has some advice on where to find the man of your dreams if you are single this Valentine’s Day.
Shop at Walmart.
A transgender friend who worked at Walmart introduced Paul to his husband, Wesley Ray, at a store in Gainesville, Florida in 1999. Paul had stopped into Walmart to buy toilet paper. He never dreamed he would find the man he would marry and spend his life with at a larger-than life department store chain. The two both say there was immediate chemistry between them.
They were inseparable from the moment they met. So much so, that when Paul was offered a job opportunity in Silicon Valley two weeks later, Wes didn’t hesitate when Paul asked Wes move with him. Wes admits it was a leap of faith. He was working as a bartender at the time and didn’t have strong ties to Gainesville. The only stipulation was that if things didn’t work out that Paul would pay for Wes’ plane ticket back home. Fortunately for both, Paul was able to save on the plane fare.
Wes is a native of Gulfport, Florida and went to Dixie Hollins High School. His father was the first sheriff of Pinellas County. And the popular gay bar Pepprz Caberet was originally named SharpAs by Wes’ mother. His adventure to Silicon Valley was an opportunity to get away from the place he grew up. Paul was originally from the Cape Cod area.
Paul had been living in an RV and continued to do so in the Silicon Valley. While the time they spent traveling the country was a happy one for them, Wes admits that living in an RV was like living life out of a tin can.
There is also a considerable age difference between the two. Paul is 62 and Wes is 46 (although his baby face makes him look much younger). Paul says he was surprised that he found Wes so attractive because he was typically fonder of older men.
When Paul’s mother died in 2004, the two traveled to Massachusetts to attend the funeral. Massachusetts had just become the first state in the union to legalize gay marriage, so they decided to seize the opportunity and get married. Marriage did not become legal nationally until 2015.
“A lot of things changed when marriage became legal everywhere,” said Paul. “Suddenly we could file our taxes jointly, visit each other in the hospital and were entitled to full survivor rights.” Wes even took Paul’s name.
They were delighted to find out that being married saved them money. A tax accountant in Gulfport told Paul that he would save money by filing jointly. The accountant was also able to refile the three prior years of tax filings jointly and got the couple a return of almost $12,000.
When Wes’ mom died a few years later, the two returned to Gulfport for the funeral. Paul immediately fell in love with the quirky little town. He says it reminded him a lot of his hometown in Cape Code. Although they ventured back to the Silicon Valley after the funeral, they made a promise to return one day.
In 2008, Paul was offered a job where he could work remotely from Gulfport. This led to another local job and the pair left the RV life behind and rented a house in their favorite little town. They purchased their current home on the west side of Gulfport in 2010.
Paul jumped right into Gulfport life and began volunteering on everything from the Gulfport Neighbors clean up projects to coordinating Dining Out for Life. Eventually he would become the first openly gay married man to serve on the Gulfport City Council. He is currently the Council Representative for Ward 3 of the city’s west side/Stetson area. He is pondering the possibility of running for mayor eventually, a move Wes fully supports.
They both admit that being so visible can sometimes be a challenge, but Paul says the residents are usually pretty respectful by not approaching him with city business when he and Wes are dining out in one of Gulfport’s many renowned restaurants.
So what’s the secret to the success of their relationship?
“Alcohol,” laughs Wes. But more seriously the two say they never go to sleep mad. Even if it takes all night, they talk it out and resolve the issue before they retire. “The make up sex is amazing too,” says Wes with a sly smile.
Do the two of them makes special plans for Valentine’s Day?
“Not usually,” says Paul. “Our big thing is our anniversary and our birthdays where we usually go to Ruth Chris’ for dinner.”
Paul and Wes are planning on celebrating 20 years together with a ceremony on Gulfport Beach on November 9, the date of their anniversary. While the ceremony itself will be a private affair with friends and family, they’re planning a public reception at Gulfport’s local waterfront Bar, Salty’s, where they hope the full Gulfport “family” can join them in their celebration.
Walmart’s slogan is “Save Money. Live Better.” From their humble beginnings in Gainesville, the two have certainly lived up to the second part of that famous statement.
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Written by Greg Stemm
Greg is a 35 year resident of Pinellas County with the past 18 living in Gulfport. He’s worked in festival management, economic development, meeting marketing, training and for an educational division of Apple Computer. He had his own marketing and PR firm throughout the 1990s before becoming the Executive Director of the Gulfport Chamber of Commerce. Today he focuses on freelance writing and as a leading social activist.
Greg is a founding board member of St. Pete Pride and prior 2005 Chairman. He currently serves on the Gulfport Public Library’s LGBTQ Resource Center committee and on Pinellas County’s LGBTQ Marketing Group. He is a 26-year survivor of HIV and often writes about his experiences. He is also an EPIC volunteer.
He is single, but the true love of his life is his year old Chiweenie puppy named Joy.
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