Part 6: The Tug Of War
Kirk graduated from high school in 1983. That same year, the Murphy family lost their home and rented a smaller house. Kirk went to work at the meat counter at a local IGA. He hated having to handle meat, but the money helped to pay rent and buy groceries and school clothes for Maris. “I don’t remember him spending any on himself or saving much,” she recalled. “It went to support us.”
Kirk decided to join the Air Force a year later. Maris recalled that he enlisted because he needed to get out of Hamilton and that was the best way to do it. In retrospect, that was probably the best move he ever made. He graduated at the top of his class from the Military Defense Language Institute in Monterrey, California, where he learned to speak Mandarin Chinese. As Kaytee proudly pointed out, Mandarin is considered one of the five most difficult languages for an English speaker to learn.92 She has a letter from Kirk’s commanding officer commending Kirk for being “among the best in the Air Force when he was promoted to senior airman. I’m sure that you share my pride in his achievements.” She framed the letter and hung it in her hallway. “He made staff sergeant in about three years,” she said. She read the letter to me over the phone because “that tells you all I can about Kirk, that whatever he took on to do, he gave it his all. I’m so proud of that letter.”
Kirk’s Air Force stint required a security clearance, and in Kirk’s case that could have posed a difficulty. It’s quite likely that the FBI and Defense Investigative Services (DIS) would have discovered details of his treatment at UCLA in his records. We do know that investigators poked around Hamilton looking for clues. Kaytee exclaimed, “Believe you me, the FBI checked that kid up, right-side down and backwards wanting to know if he was gay.” But they didn’t find anything. Kirk not only remained in the Air Force, but he got his clearance.
Kirk flourished in the Air Force. Maris said that this was the first time that she knew him to make true and lasting friends, including, perhaps for the first time, gay friends. One of those life-long friends was Tim Lee. They had crossed paths at the Language Institute, and became good friends while Kirk was on his first tour of duty in South Korea in 1988. Tim found him “complicated and multidimensional.” He explained, “He could be so much fun. He had a great sense of humor, fairly sarcastic, that fit right in with the group we ran with.” But Kirk also had his moody side. “He actually said once that he wished he had never existed. Overall, he was a great friend, well liked by others, but he just seemed like he could never fully feel the love his family and friends felt for him in return.”
Whatever doubts Kirk continued to harbor about himself, his new life appears to have given him the courage he needed to come out to his family. He came out first to Maris, telling her while he was home for a break at around 1988. “I remember him telling me he wanted to tell me something really important,” she said. “He was really nervous about my reaction to it or what I would think. If I recall, it took him a couple of tries to tell me. And then he told me.”
Maris was “surprised but not surprised.” “You know something’s coming,” she said, “and yet it’s been there the whole time. But it’s still surprising when you hear it.” Maris saw Kirk as something of a surrogate parent, and her first reaction was sadness. “I remember thinking he’d make such a great parent. Back then, gay people didn’t get married and have families. So it felt like he was going to have to give all of those things up.”
But Kirk reminded her that the things that made her happy wouldn’t necessarily be the things that made him happy. She understood, but was still worried. “I thought that once he got out of Hamilton and was able to get away from some of the people who weren’t always kind to him, that he would have a happier life. In the military, he really did have some really good times and he certainly had some really good friends. But I just knew that the road was going to be hard.”
Later that year at around Christmastime, Kirk came out to his mother over the phone while he was back in Korea. “He said, ‘You know, Mom, you know I’m gay’,” she recalled. “And I said, ‘Yes, Kirk, I know. But that doesn’t make me love you any less.’ But I don’t know if he thought that we really didn’t love him because of it. He was quite insecure and it probably did bother him.”
Kirk never really had a “coming out” conversation with Mark. “I don’t think he felt the need to tell me, and I don’t think he had to tell me either,” he said. But it was probably at around this time that Kirk mentioned to Mark that Dr. Green had written a book and that Kirk was in it. Mark said, “I asked him, ‘Are you going to read it?’ But he said no.”
Another important friend came into Kirk’s life after he returned stateside from his first tour in Korea. Sometime around 1990, he met Debbie while the two of them were stationed at Ft. Meade outside of Washington, D.C. “We hit it off really well,” she remembered. “We got really close and started hanging out.”
They had a lot in common, beginning with the fact that they were both gay and in the military. But their friendship went much deeper than that. “He was always a real introspective kind of guy,” she explained. “Out of all of my friends, I always felt like we could talk about things that would go deeper. We dissected everything. We’d take trips back to my home in Tennessee, and we’d spend the seven hours just talking about our feelings and things. He was always a deep, emotional kind of guy.”
“We both wanted to live off base,” she remembered, “and unfortunately gay people can’t get married so we couldn’t get the benefits to live off base. We had to live in a dorm and share a room with someone else.” But as anti-gay activists like to say, gay people can get married as long as they marry someone of the opposite sex. And so Kirk and Debbie got married. While their marriage wasn’t a very conventional one, Kirk and Debbie did become very close.
They lived together off base for a while until Kirk was sent to Korea for his second tour. Kirk returned to the U.S. in 1992, and he and Tim left the Air Force after taking advantage of a $10 military flight to Germany and England for a two week vacation. When they got back, they met up with Debbie, who had also left the Air Force. “He and Tim came and spent a few weeks with me in Tennessee,” she said, “and we drove across country and made the decision to move to the Phoenix area. Kirk and I lived together for a long time.” Debbie eventually moved in with someone else, and Kirk and Tim bought a house and moved in as roommates. Kirk and Debbie would eventually divorce “about ten years ago, I don’t remember when. But we remained very close friends. We’ve known each other for a long time, through ups and downs.”
Debbie remembers that Kirk was a lot of fun to be around and they shared a sarcastic sense of humor. “We were always kind of mean to each other, but in a fun, teasing sort of way,” she remembered. “We’d go out and we’d dance until six in the morning. He loved music and he could sing. Oh my God, I just wish he would have joined the Gay Men’s Chorus or something. He was so good. He was a lot of fun to hang out with and tell jokes. He was just a super fun guy. But there was a side of him that was in some kind of pain. He never could see himself the way everybody else did. He always put himself down.”
After a series of odd jobs, Kirk went to work for Bowne and Company, which handled SEC filings for other companies. He also went to college while working full time, earning first a Bachelor’s degree in Human Resources in 1998 followed by a Master’s in Organizational Management two years later. Frank Schnepp, Kirk’s boss at Bowne remembered Kirk as being one of his better employees. “He was terrific,” he said. “He started off as a conversion operator and then he became a line supervisor and he literally ran a shift for us. He was very quiet, a very gentle soul, he was very good at what he did. He was very involved on the technical side.”
“I think he had great confidence in his skill, but again, he was very quiet and we didn’t know much about him other than the guy did a very good job for us when he came to work every day.”
Frank remembered Kirk as running a tight ship at work. He exuded confidence on the job, but outside of work things were different. “He was always unsure of himself,” said Debbie. “He did a lot of good things, but he never felt like he was as accomplished. He was never as sure of himself as a lot of us were of him.”
Kirk also had trouble reconciling himself with his sexuality. “Kirk always told us he was ashamed of the fact that he wanted to have sex,” she explained. “He always thought that he was a sexual compulsive. I’d tell him, ‘I’ve known a lot of gay men throughout my life, and Kirk, you’re not sexually compulsive.’ I couldn’t understand why he always felt there was something wrong with him.”
“I knew that he had gone to counseling at UCLA, and it was because his parents were trying to keep him from being gay,” she said. He didn’t tell her any details of his treatment. “Now that I’ve heard all of this stuff, it really starts to make sense.”
Debbie said that as long as she knew Kirk, she never knew him to have a serious relationship. He would go on dates, but he’d always find something minor wrong with the men he dated. “One guy wore Phoenix Suns socks,” she said. “We used to tease him about the fact that he found silly things wrong with guys.”
Tim agreed. “He was, like the rest of us, by no means a prude, but he never really let anyone get too close to him. On the three or four times in his life when it looked like things could get serious with someone it always seemed like he found some way to sabotage it.”
Debbie added, “He never thought he was attractive. I always thought he was attractive and everyone I knew did as well. I always told him, ‘I wish you could see yourself the way other people see you because you’re selling yourself short.’ He was tremendously smart and very funny and very handsome, and he never acknowledged that.”
Despite Kirk’s low self-esteem, his success at work continued to impress his supervisors. In late 2002, Bowne decided to enter into a joint venture in India to offload some of the work. Frank remembers, “Kirk was one of the first guys to step up and ask, ‘How can I get this thing going?’ And he was one of the first few that flew there for the first time with me and several others to kick off the new relationship.”
Kirk went to New Delhi in January of 2003 to get the office set up, and he returned again in March to help with the busy tax filing season. His superiors were very impressed with his performance. This helped to boost his sense of accomplishment. But that’s not the only thing that excited him about India.
“He met a guy over there,” said Debbie. “He told me and my partner that he was excited about this guy, but the guy was promised to be married to a girl… you know the culture over there, that’s just the way it is.”
Later that summer, Bowne decided that the India office needed more help. Frank remembered: “When we decided that we really needed somebody on the ground there 24/5 to represent our company’s best interest, Kirk came to me and said, ‘How about me? I enjoyed the trips out there when I helped to kick this thing off, and I wouldn’t mind going out there and being the man on the ground.’ And for us that was a perfect fit because it was newly launched and he had the abilities to train the people in India as well as work with them on a daily basis.”
Bowne offered him a two to three year assignment in India. Kirk was excited but Debbie worried. “I said, ‘Kirk, I’m extremely excited for you. If this is something that you feel is good for your career, I think it’s great. But I think you’re in a tenuous place emotionally and mentally, and if you’re going back there because you’re excited about this guy, I wish you would reconsider.’ I didn’t want him to go back because I was afraid the reason he was going back was because of the guy, and not because of the job.”
But in August of 2003, Kirk did return to India. He rekindled his relationship with the guy. “I know that Kirk traveled back to his village with him a few times,” said Debbie. “I don’t really know what happened between the two of them. I don’t know if anything happened between the two of them.” If anything did happen, Kirk kept it hidden. “All I knew was Kirk had gone back to the guy’s village. At least that’s what Kirk emailed. But again, Kirk is the master at telling you what he wants you to hear. Was there something wrong and he wouldn’t tell me? That could have been, and it wouldn’t have been the first time.”
Whatever was going on with Kirk personally, he nevertheless threw himself into his work and he made a lot of friends. He began learning Hindi and, much to his coworkers’ amusement, he bought children’s books to teach himself to read Sanskrit. He also began studying the Hindu religion and spending a lot of time at a local temple. But he was taken aback by the caste system and the destitute poverty it enforced; his response was to ignore the limits it set. When he made friends with lower-caste Indians, he earned a great deal of admiration from his colleagues for his openness and friendliness. The poverty though was something else. Tim remembered one phone call where Kirk put it in perspective. Someone told Kirk that Americans were so rich that some of them even own houses just for their cars.
Kirk seemed to thrive in India, at least by outward appearances. But his old coping patterns soon repeated themselves: he was hiding his struggles. Only this time, he was away from his supportive network of friends. Maris would later learn that he emailed a trusted coworker back in Phoenix that he was having trouble emotionally. “He was saying he was tired,” Maris recalled, “he didn’t like being a gay man in a country that didn’t accept that, he had met someone over there and that was filled with conflict and fear, and he was distraught over all of that. And he was working too much and he felt isolated, and if he wasn’t successful there, he couldn’t handle the failure of it.” Kirk’s coworker in Phoenix did what she could to support him, but that was difficult to do over long distances via email. Meanwhile, Kirk’s emails to Debbie and her partner, the people who probably knew him the best, remained upbeat. There were no hints that Kirk was unhappy. “None whatsoever,” Debbie emphasized. Again, the lessons that Kirk learned at a very young age, that he needed to hide whatever would trouble those closest to him, continued to serve him poorly.
Because India is such a family-centered society, and because most of the people who worked at the New Delhi office were single and came from other cities and villages, the company organized social events and activities for their employees. That December, the company rented a sports complex and organized a day of games and competitions. Kirk’s coworkers would later tell Maris that everyone had a great time that day, including Kirk. They said that he had participated fully in the competitions and was key to his team’s victory in tug-of-war.
The next day was the awards ceremony, but Kirk never showed up. His friends tried calling him on his cell phone, but he didn’t answer. Fearing that something was wrong, they went to his apartment building. They tried banging on the door to his apartment but there was no answer. Then someone looked through a window and saw Kirk. He had hanged himself from a ceiling fan. He was already dead.
Kirk left a note, but it was vague. Maris remembers it saying, “To anyone who this may have hurt, please forgive me. The darkness keeps calling and I must go.”
Next: Skirting the Issues
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92. “Language learning difficulty for English speakers.” National Virtual Translation Center web site, as archived on archive.org on August 22, 2008 (retrieved October 12, 2010). Available online at http://web.archive.org/web/20080822090252/http://www.nvtc.gov/lotw/months/november/learningExpectations.html.