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Buff Carmichael reflects on his life and downstate activism
by Matt Simonette
2020-05-27

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In this series, Windy City Times talks with activist Buff Carmichael regarding various issues and life developments.

Activist Buff Carmichael has been active in downstate LGBT issues, as well as myriad other progressive causes, since the early '90s.

That was when the newly out-of-the-closet Carmichael came to Illinois from his native Texas thanks to a job transfer and began to work on behalf of LGBT state-residents who, in large part because of their geographic location, did not have particularly loud voices in their communities.

Carmichael was the publisher of the LGBT newspaper the Prairie Flame, and was active in downstate advocates' endeavors to bring marriage-equality to Illinois in the mid-2010s. He has lately been in poor health, but spoke with Windy Times for a three-part series reflecting on his life and activism.

Windy City Times: Speak a bit on the origins for your name.

Buff Carmichael: My father was much older than most dads of someone my age; he was 53 when I was born. His father was murdered in 1893. His name was Billy Carmichael—William Thomas Carmichael. My father was born four months after his father was murdered and was the only child named Carmichael out of a family of 12 children.

There were no birth certificates in those days and not much record-keeping at all. He grew up with the name Buff Carmichael. He didn't know exactly how that came about, but the story he always told was that his father was Billy Carmichael, and he was probably "Little Billy or "Billy Jr.," but if you think about it, in 1893, on a ranch in Texas, it was a typical cowboy situation, and a hero of that era was Buffalo Bill.

It stood to reason that if he was Little Billy, they also called him Buffalo Bill. He joined the army as Buff Carmichael and married my mother as Buff Carmichael, and named me Buf, Jr.

WCT: What was it like growing up gay in Waco back then?

BC: My initial response is, How would I know? The social pressure—being an only son of an only son, who had to carry on the family name in a deeply religious Southern Baptist family—meant being gay was not an option.

In school, I was picked at without mercy. 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.

WCT: How old were you when you got married?

BC: Twenty-one.

WCT: Your wife eventually discovered the truth about you?

BC: Yes. We tried to maintain a marriage for several years after that, but other issues popped up that eventually led to our divorce.

WCT: How did you try to maintain your marriage after the truth was out?

BC: We had a little agreement that if I said I was going out, she would ask, "Where are you going?" I would answer, "Do you really want to know?" She would say, "Yes, I understand."

Keep in mind, that was taking place, coincidentally, with the outbreak of AIDS. I was trying to enjoy my sexuality without it having any impact on my marriage, which led to loose promiscuity. The longer I lived with that, the more the chances that I would bring something home to my family. The longer I lived with that, it was best for everybody for me to pick one side or the other.

WCT: You eventually ended up in Dallas. What took you there?

BC: We had invested our life savings in a business. I was a funeral director and an embalmer, and we had an unfortunate time. We were having an auction on the front steps of the funeral home, and I was deep in debt to all the suppliers. It just seemed necessary that I get to a bigger city where I could blend in better and I find a job so that I could better support my family.

I went to Dallas looking for work, and over a period of time, went through several terrible jobs, and finally found a good one. But all that, in part, is what put a strain on the marriage.

It was a good paying job [with Johnson Controls] and they were really nice people to work for. But as I was going through a very nasty divorce, they encouraged me to either leave or take the risk of being fired. If I left voluntarily, I would be eligible for rehire.

So I voluntarily left, and went on a downhill slide through poorer and poorer jobs. But I was back and forth in court all the time. I stayed in Dallas, or around its suburbs, until around '92. The job I had in Dallas at the very end offered me the opportunity to be the assistant manager at a new location they were opening in Decatur, Illinois, so I left a lousy job in Dallas to go to a not quite as lousy job in Decatur.

WCT: What was life like for you in Illinois versus what it had been in Texas?

BC: My children had grown increasingly angry with me and I decided to move on with my life. When I went to Decatur, I didn't know how safe it was to be out. 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.

In September of '92, I got a promotion to be manager of the store I worked at. Also in September, I met Jerry [Bowman, Carmichael's late husband]. In November of '92, I got fired. So the next January I moved in with Jerry in Springfield. That was in a whirlwind of a year.

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 everybody—I knew nobody. But over the next few months, that evolved into the Central Illinois Gay and Lesbian Task Force.

It was set up to have make and female co-chairs, but we couldn't find women to participate at all. I was the male co-chair and was constantly trying to find women to come in and help run it, but had little success with that. But when I got politically active that way, I was always being interviewed on radio and TV, and in newspapers.

I was working as a temp, knowing I could be fired for not having my nails clean or something. So I was really concerned about that, but I thought what I was doing was important, so I did it. I had no bad effects from it. Everybody was very kind.

WCT: How did you come to that realization?

BC: I had an answering machine at home that I could call into, and one day I got a message to call the State Journal-Register. There was a guy who had been picking out gay men and killing them. His mother had lived in St. Louis, and he had escaped from prison, and there was a nationwide story about who this guy was. Somebody reported that they saw somebody who looked like him in one of our bars here in Springfield.

The person who had been the media contact for the gay community was no longer doing it, so he gave [the newspaper] my number. I asked my boss if I could make a private phone call and did the interview over the phone. I then went in and told my boss that I did an interview, and that it might be somewhat controversial.

She asked, "Are you famous?"

I answered, "More likely I'm infamous."

The next day, when I walked into work, there was a lot of whispering behind my back. But everybody was pleasant and I started doing my daily work.

At about 2:30 in the afternoon, the boss brought her chair to my desk. … [She said] "We don't care what you do in your time off, or what you stand for or what you believe, as long as you do your work or involve the state [for whom he had the temporary post] in your political action." That was it. People were just as nice as they could be about it.

In part two of this interview, Carmichael discusses his early relationship with husband Jerry Bowman, early downstate activism and his launch of the Prairie Flame.


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