Longtime LGBTQ+-rights activist Buff Carmichael II, who was publisher of the Prairie Flame newspaper, passed away March 21 at his home in Springfield after a long illness. He was 73.
A longtime State of Illinois employee, Carmichael and his late husband, Jerry Bowman, were active in a number of rights initiatives and organizations over the last several decades, including the March on Springfield, the AIDS Memorial Labyrinth and the Coalition of Rainbow Alliances (CORAL), which he co-founded.
In a March 21 announcement, CORAL officials said, "Buff was an activist, historian, and humanitarian in the gay community involved in causes that transversed our city, Illinois, and the nation." They added that Carmichael "was the protagonist for change in our community and will forever have left an indelible mark on our hearts and minds."
Born into an extremely religious family in Waco, Texas, Carmichael struggled against bullies when he was growing up, he told Windy City Times in early 2020.
"In school, I was picked at without mercy," Carmichael recalled. "It seems like they all knew I was gay. I didn't know, and I was determined that I wouldn't be. I went into my adulthood absolutely determined that any inclinations that I had towards homosexuality had to be thwarted and disposed of. I can't really say that I grew up knowing what it was like to be gay. I didn't come to terms with being gay until I was married and had children."
Carmichael first married when he was 21 and worked for many years in the funeral industry before eventually changing careers. He and his wife divorced and, after many years in Dallas, he ultimately moved to Decatur, Illinois, thanks to a job promotion in 1992.
"When I went to Decatur, I didn't know how safe it was to be out," Carmichael said." By then I was reasonably comfortable in my gay skin, but I was in a new place. I had an old man tell me one day, 'These are good people who will accept you know matter who you are, as long as you're honest. If they find out there's something you've been hiding, they'll never forgive you.' That [influenced] my decision to be more open about who I was."
He met Bowman, his future husband, in late 1992, and the couple moved to Springfield soon after. Carmichael's LGBT-rights activism began to take off at that time as well.
Carmichael recalled: "This guy published an article in the paper that he was trying to start a gay community group, so Jerry and I went. There were a whole bunch of people there and of course Jerry knew everybodyI knew nobody. But over the next few months, that evolved into the Central Illinois Gay and Lesbian Task Force. ... I was always being interviewed on radio and TV, and in newspapers."
Indeed, Carmichael became an unofficial spokesperson for the community in those early years of his LGBT-rights activism. When he warned his boss that he'd given an interview that would be somewhat controversial. His boss asked if Carmichael was famous outside their office. Carmichael's reply was that, "More likely I'm infamous."
After attempting to put together a late-night public access talk show"I would say the maximum rating was about eight people," he recalledCarmichael and Bowman teamed up to create the first issue of the Prairie Flame in 1996. Carmichael thought it was important to both honor a prominent and support a local Barnes and Noble that was taking flack for having a Pride month window display. He assembled that first issue over the course of two nights.
He and Bowman, without pay, continued publishing for 12 years. They assembled a team of writers in nearby cities, all of whom similarly went uncompensated. "Once a year we would go to a really nice restaurant and Prairie Flame would buy dinner for all of our volunteersthat was the only pay they received," Carmichael said. He worked full-time for the state's Department of Nuclear Safety at the time, spending most evenings writing for and compiling the paper.
Prairie Flame was a casualty of the Great Recession, folding in 2008.
"Every business starts cutting their advertising when things are tough," recalled Carmichael. "Jerry and I were looking at getting to retirement and we couldn't retireour money went to keeping the Flame alive. We reached the month when the advertising couldn't cover the printing bill. And there were things besides the printing bill we had to pay, like the utilities and rent. We said it was time to stop."
But Carmichael's activism did not come to a stop. While the Prairie Flame had covered marriage-equality extensively, it was not something that Carmichael put significant effort toward through his activism until 2013, when there was a call for a march on Springfield. As the primary Downstate organizer for the Oct. 2013 march, he was called on prepare locally for the event.
He admitted in 2020, that, at the time of the march, "I felt like I had a big load to carry." Carmichael had to navigate politics of multiple organizations he was affiliated with, as well as deal with personal crises at the time of the march. Once the march actually started, in fact, he just went home and went to bed.
Besides campaigning for LGBTQ+ rights, Carmichael was also a staunch advocate against the death penaltya belief that he carried since the age of 5, when his Bible school could not rationalize for him why "thou shalt not kill" seemingly did not apply to the death penalty, which his father had just explained to him. Years later, after he came out of the closet, Carmichael felt welcomed in Texas' anti-death penalty activism circles, but did not among entrenched gay-rights activists there.
He and Bowman were married in September 2014. Carmichael recalled, "We wanted to do it the right way. We realized that the anniversary of the day we met, Sept. 20, was a Saturday that year, so what better day than our anniversary? We almost immediately remembered a favorite campsite that we had gone to, where there was an amphitheater. … We drove over there, looked at it again and talked to the officials at the park. We had a very nice wedding."
Bowman passed away in 2017.
Carmichael emphasized that "closets" were the most detrimental threat to the LGBT community, maintaining that being open was best for anyone.
"I married a man who was from a town of 400 people," Carmichael said. "He told me that if I had moved there myself, my house would have been burned down that first weekend. But if we moved there together, we would have been just fine. They don't like queers, but he was their queer and they loved him.
"It seems to me that the biggest mistake that we make is trying to hide who we are."
Carmichael is survived by four children, Trey Carmichael, Janna Doyle, Erin Agee, and James Hunter Carmichael; several grandchildren; and a sister, Judy Lohmann. In addition to Bowman, he was preceded in death by his parents, Buff and Leona Beatrice, and two sisters, Carol Carlsen and Nada Bell.
A graveside service will be 12:30 p.m. on Friday, March 26, at Oak Ridge Cemetery, 1441 Monument Ave., Springfield, IL 62702. Meet at the cemetery gates on Monument Avenue at 12:15 p.m. for procession to the graveside.
A memorial celebration commemorating Carmichael's life is planned for July 3. Memorial contributions may be made to Fifth Street Renaissance SARA Center, 1315 N. 5th Street, Springfield, IL 62702 or Acorn Equality Fund, P.O. Box 6286, Peoria, IL 61601.