March 31, 2011 at 12:02 am EDT | by Chris Johnson
Gay Hill staffer remembered for humor, dedication

Christopher Crowe (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

The booming voice of Katy Perry accompanying a techno-dance beat of her song “Firework” jolted Kyle Murphy from sleep a couple months ago at 3 a.m.

Curious about the disturbance, Murphy arose from bed to find his best friend and roommate Christopher Crowe dancing on top of their kitchen island.

“I didn’t know what was going on,” Murphy said. “He had brought some friends home and the first thing I saw was him standing on the island in our kitchen dancing to Katy Perry. He was kind of the life of the party.”

For Murphy, who had known Crowe for more than five years since they interned together at the Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund, the memory represents Crowe’s over-the-top personality and willingness to go to great lengths to entertain others.

“Somebody had collected some quotes he used to say in his office, and one of them was ‘I say ‘no’ to drugs, and that’s it,'” Murphy said. “And that kind of, I felt like, summed up his personality.”

Crowe died last week at the Washington Hospital Center from a staph infection that damaged his heart after he contracted meningitis last summer.

Crowe, 29, who was gay, served as president of the LGBT Congressional Staff Association and as a staffer for Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas). The death of the Kentucky native struck many Capitol Hill staffers and LGBT advocates with grief and prompted fond recollections of his life this week.

Johnson issued a statement expressing sorrow over the loss of her longtime staffer and sympathy for his family and loved ones.

“He was respected by his colleagues for his professionalism; he was beloved by many for his generous spirit and good humor,” Johnson said. “He was a person who enjoyed life and always had a smile to share. He never met a stranger.”

Many friends who worked with him on Capitol Hill and in LGBT advocacy had similar recollections of Crowe’s outgoing personality, which they said enabled him to make fast friends.

Marcus Paulsen, who’s gay and an administrative coordinator for the nonprofit group Community Wealth Ventures, said Crowe had a unique way of making others feel at ease.

“He was always laughing, and it didn’t matter if you told the dumbest joke,” Paulsen said. “He always would find it funny and could find something hysterical about it.”

A Dallas native, Paulsen said Crowe helped him obtain a position as an intern, and later a staffer, in Johnson’s office, where the two worked together for a year-and-a-half.

Paulsen recalled a time in December 2009 when he and Crowe participated in a retreat for staffers in Johnson’s office in Texas. Identifying the experience as one of his fondest memories of Crowe, Paulsen said people he knew from his home state easily made friends with Crowe.

“For me, it was kind of two worlds coming together: my D.C. life and my Texas life,” Paulsen said. “I wasn’t really sure how people would react to some of my D.C. friends and Chris, but he just had this way of becoming really close with people and everybody just absolutely adored him.”

Jason Mida, the Victory Fund’s vice president of development, knew Crowe from his days as an intern at the organization in 2005 and said Crowe had a unique way of drawing others to him.

“It didn’t matter who you were, it didn’t matter what your political affiliation was,” said Mida, who’s gay. “People were drawn to Chris. He was a ball of life and people wanted to be around him because you just felt better. You felt better about yourself; you felt better about things in general when he was around.”

Scott Simpson, press secretary of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, knew Crowe from working together on the LGBT Congressional Staff Association and said he admired the confidence that gave Crowe the ability to speak with anyone.

“He had an ease about dealing with any range of people,” Simpson said. “Chris wouldn’t think twice about calling up the highest-level person in an agency or to the lowest-level person.”

Simpson said Crowe’s care for others enabled him to stay engaged with friends even as he struggled with meningitis for several months.

“This was a man who was in the emergency room,” Simpson said. “He was sending e-mails, text messages, asking how things are going, asking if he can help. If you didn’t know that Chris was sick, if you weren’t informed about it, people never knew.”

While always eager to have a good time with others, Crowe was also known among his friends as a passionate worker in both legislative affairs and LGBT advocacy.

Murphy, a communications specialist for the National Minority AIDS Council, recalled that Crowe’s dedication enabled him to rise quickly to become a high-level staffer for Johnson and to get elected as president of LGBT Congressional Staff Association.

“Everything that I heard about him was that he was amazing — not the greatest writer — but he had dyslexia, but he worked through that very well and didn’t let anything hold him back,” Murphy said.

Simpson recalled his days as president of the LGBT Congressional Staff Association before he left Capitol Hill when Crowe served as his deputy. The two worked on recreating the association after it had long been dormant.

Even though their work in recreating the association involved activity on rewriting bylaws and other less-than-exciting tasks, Crowe found ways to make the work enjoyable.

“Chris made people come to these meetings and actually enjoy themselves and actually laugh,” Simpson said. “He understood that in order to commit people to make change, they had to have a good time and that, I believe, was his secret weapon.”

As evidence of Crowe’s jovial personality, Simpson noted that Crowe would only refer to him as “Girl!” during the course of their work together. Simpson joked that he didn’t know if Crowe actually knew his name.

In his days as a Victory Fund intern, Mida said Crowe was dedicated and passionate about LGBT advocacy. He took a personal interest in working to elect Vivian Paige, a lesbian who ran in 2005 for city treasurer in Norfolk, Va.

“I remember how visibly upset he was when Vivian lost that night,” Mida said. “We’d only been there a few days, but he was so invested. I think that across the board —whether it was his work and whether it was relationships with folks — he immediately became invested in folks, and as a result, people were invested in him.”

Among the activities that friends cited as Crowe’s favorite was travel. In his work on foreign affairs issues for Johnson, Crowe would often take opportunities to go abroad as part of his work as a congressional staffer.

Murphy recalled that Crowe traveled to Dubai and Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates as part of his work for Johnson, which Murphy said gave Crowe “a travel bug.”

Among the trips that Murphy took with Crowe was an expedition with him and his mother on a Key West cruise in 2009.

“We were both redheads and so we just kind of looked like brothers, so we just starting telling everybody that we were brothers from that cruise ship on — and I referred to his mom as ‘Mama,'” Murphy said.

Murphy recalled that he and Crowe went to Peru in 2008 and Crowe traveled with other friends to Bangkok and Hong Kong. Before Crowe’s death, Murphy said his friend had asked him to put together another trip together.

But dreams for travel and ambitions for further work on LGBT issues and politics were cut short. Murphy, who was present at the hospital where Crowe died, was the first of his friends to know.

“His mom had called me and was kind of frantic telling me the doctors had come out of the operating room saying they didn’t know if he was going to make it, so I rushed to the hospital,” Murphy said. “By the time I got there, he had passed.”

Murphy said in the operating waiting room he encountered Crowe’s mother, who was crying and at first unable to speak, but then said, “We lost him.” Murphy said the news was devastating, but he took on the responsibility of sending e-mails to Crowe’s friends and fellow Hill staffers to inform them.

Paulsen was one of the recipients of the e-mails and, in a state of shock, said he immediately left work upon hearing the news.

“I walked all the way over to Chris’ apartment to be with his roommate and family,” Paulsen said. “At first I couldn’t process it, but it was just very sad.”

Another e-mail recipient, Simpson said Crowe’s death came as a surprise because those who knew him thought he could just “smile through” his disease to become healthy.

“It didn’t seem real,” Simpson said. “I knew that Chris was sick, but it was never always clear that it would be this bad.”

Simpson observed that deaths at a young age are relatively uncommon in the younger generation of gay men — unlike what older gay men faced during the AIDS crisis of the 1980s and early ’90s.

“We’re not used to death,” Simpson said. “He was the first of my peers to pass on. If you talk to gay men who are in their 40s and 50s, they had peers pass away all the time. That was one of those moments that I started to understand that this was just a hint of what gay men who were around in the ’80s were going through.”

Still, the memory of Crowe and his sparkling personality remain an inspiration for those who knew him.

Paulsen said he would always remember Crowe’s ability to find greater potential in others.

“He found some talents in me when we worked together and he made sure to always bring those up to the congresswoman or the chief of staff,” Paulsen said. “I think that’s what I’ll take from him — to try to make sure I see these things that might not be visible to everybody else and make sure that they’re aware of some of their talents.”

Murphy, who said he’s often a wallflower in social situations or nervous around guys he likes, expressed admiration for what he said was Crowe’s ability to embrace every situation head on and would try to emulate that approach to life.

“I think that’s something we and all of his friends really appreciated and his family, too,” Murphy said. “It’s something we’ll all probably try to live up to.”

For Simpson, Crowe’s memory inspires him to be proud of who he is and helps him stay grounded.

“Chris was aware of who he was and he fucking loved it, and played it up,” Simpson said. “Chris just knew that you have to be OK with who you are, but you have to be not just OK with it, but you have to own it and love it.”

A memorial service for Crowe is set to take place on Thursday at 12 pm in Room LJ-119 in the Jefferson Building at the Library of Congress. The Congressional LGBT Equality Caucus and the LGBT Congressional Staff Association are hosting the event. House chaplain Rev. Daniel Coughlin is set to officiate over the service.

Chris Johnson is Chief Political & White House Reporter for the Washington Blade. Johnson attends the daily White House press briefings and is a member of the White House Correspondents' Association. Follow Chris

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