Justin Miller & Shae Carroll
Sept. 12, 2020, in Philadelphia
Justin and Shae planned to make Philadelphia home, they just didn’t think they would land here so soon.
Their adventure started in New York City in October 2014. After working a volunteer shift at the Trevor Project — an LGBTQ youth suicide prevention hotline — Justin and a friend went to a Hell’s Kitchen bar. A small group was dancing and laughing, so Justin suggested they join them.
Shae had left the on-stage dancing to his bolder friends, both performers. He was impressed by Justin’s confidence, his kind demeanor, and his looks, but he mostly listened as Justin talked with Jordan, his friend visiting from L.A.
Justin, who grew up in Lancaster and had lived in Philadelphia before moving to New York in 2012 for work, later saw the photos Jordan posted and couldn’t stop looking at Shae.
Two weeks later, Jordan, back in town, texted an invitation for Justin to join her and Shae at the same bar.
Justin, now 33, and Shae, now 32, found much more in common than mutual attraction. Both work in sales — Justin for DoubleVerify and Shae for Forbes Media. Each is a good listener. Family is the keystone of their lives. Both lived in Harlem, and they took the same train home to keep talking.
They got takeout just after Thanksgiving, then spent nearly every day together. About six months in, Shae moved in with Justin.
“He has so much confidence in who he is,” said Shae, who grew up in a small town an hour from Tulsa, Okla. “He cares about me and has always tried very hard to make me feel that and to show that to me. I soon knew all about his nieces and nephews and what they were all doing — and that’s important.”
Shae also loves the way his strengths and Justin’s create a balanced partnership. Justin does the cooking, Shae does the dishes. Justin makes plans and creates designs that Shae builds.
Justin said Shae’s looks, kindness, and the fun they have together drew him in, but those things aren’t so rare. “I fell in love with the things he brought to my life that I had never before found — the balance he brought to my life, the value of sometimes just relaxing and taking life at a slower pace. His willingness to put in the work to make our relationship one that works for us.”
When Justin saw Shae forging relationships not only with his siblings, but with their children, he knew that he and Shae would one day marry.
How does forever sound?
In May 2018, Justin told Shae he had planned a birthday trip for him to Dallas, where some of his family and friends could join them.
One evening, Justin took Shae’s hand and guided him to a large tree in the park across the street from their hotel. Justin knelt, said some lovely things that neither remembers, and asked Shae to marry him — pulling off a grand surprise.
The next day, more than 20 friends and family members gathered to celebrate the engagement.
Celebrating love in their chosen city
The couple were renting in Harlem, but since fall 2018, they have also owned a home in Philadelphia, where they planned to eventually settle. Marrying in their eventual home city seemed like a fine choice — especially since Justin’s friend Liz works in catering and events and could provide valuable guidance.
In February 2020, the couple came to Philly for a walk-through of the hotel where Liz then worked and consider dates in February or March of 2021. Their Philadelphia home, which they offered as a short-term rental, was occupied, so they booked a room at the Fitler Club. Then COVID-19 cases began to rise and weddings were being postponed or canceled everywhere, so the couple held off on making a deposit.
By March, COVID had shut down their New York offices. After a few weeks of working in the tight space of their apartment, they had an epiphany: No one was renting their Philadelphia place, which had much more space. They moved south, canceled their New York lease, and have been living and working remotely from Point Breeze ever since.
“Even during COVID, it has been great exploring our new city,” said Shae.
One day in August, Shae saw an Instagram post from the Fitler Club — the place where they had stayed while scoping out their would-have-been wedding venue. The Fitler was launching a new COVID-safe micro-wedding service by giving one wedding away. Entries were due that week.
“If we won, would you be OK if this were our wedding?” he asked Justin.
“It would be a great silver lining to a very interesting year,” Justin said.
They sent in their story. Justin, who thought their chances were tiny, didn’t tell anyone. Shae, who had a feeling they might win, asked his family if they could make it to Philadelphia with two weeks’ notice.
The couple and two friends in their COVID bubble were about to drive to a Lehigh Valley campground in a rented RV when a message came in from the Fitler Club asking the couple to call. Theirs had been chosen from about 50 entries.
“The only thing we had to do was get our attire, find an officiant, and invite guests,” said Justin. “I already had a list.”
Small, sweet, and safe
The ceremony and reception for 23 guests were held outside in the Fitler Club’s garden. Everyone was seated by household or COVID bubble and wore masks when social distancing wasn’t possible. “It was really fun, and it felt like a normal wedding, which was amazing, because none of us had been to anything that felt normal for about six months,” Justin said.
The men each walked their parents down the aisle, then returned to walk down together — one of the most powerful moments for Shae. “As a gay man, when I was growing up, this didn’t quite exist,” he said. “There were so many of our friends and family, and they had come to celebrate us getting married. This was real.”
The Rev. Karin Otto of Ceremony Officiants led the couple in the vows they wrote to each other.
Justin made some promises about the future life and family they hope for. “I also promised, just as importantly, to make the journey as fun as the destination,” he said.
Shae promised his man with many plans he would help him with every single one of his home improvement projects. “I also said I would stand very proudly next to Justin, no matter how see-through his mesh shirts are.”
Then came the dancing, to lots of disco and other songs known to all generations of guests.
Justin loved how every person present felt like an integral part of the intimate ceremony, and he also loved saying hello to the dozens of remote guests in their Zoom squares.
Justin and Shae have spent the fall much as they spent summer. They work from home. They stay within their bubble. They do home improvement projects. And, since November, they play and walk with Ira, their Cavapoo puppy. “Leaving the house in the middle of the day to walk a dog or to go get a coffee you don’t really need — any little excuse to get out safely — is good,” said Justin.