Windy City Times has been featuring remembrances by longtime Springfield-based activist Buff Carmichael, who is also the former publisher of the Prairie Flame newspaper.
In this final segment, Carmichael discusses why he was attracted to death penalty-reform work as well as his contributions to the push for marriage equality in the early 2010's.
Windy City Times: Besides LGBTQ-rights, you also have been advocating against the death penalty. How did that come about?
Buff Carmichael: I grew up in Texas. My father read the newspaper cover-to-cover, and we talked about current affairs at the breakfast table.
We were poor folks, so we didn't have summer camp. Every church in the neighborhood had "vacation Bible school." When I was five, we had talked at the breakfast table about a pending execution in Texas, and I went to vacation Bible school and they were talking about the Ten Commandments. They said, "Thou shall not kill," and I asked, "Well, what about this death penalty?"
They said, "Well, that's different. That's okay. That's a bad person that did something bad and they don't deserve to live."
That's not what the Bible says. The Bible says, "Thou shalt not kill." … So I maintain that I started my campaign against the death penalty at age five.
When I moved my family to Dallas, it was the first time I'd lived someplace that had more than three churches. We started to look at all the things we could be involved in that you could not be involved with in a small town. I quickly found myself involved in every worthy cause in the world. I finally decided to limit myself to two causes. Those were LGBT rights and criminal-justice reform.
WCT: When did you become involved with marriage equality as a cause?
BC: In the newspaper, it was a topic that kept coming up. When Illinois was considering changing their constitution to avoid having same-sex marriage, our newspaper covered that. Anything the newspaper was covering I would up becoming involved in. I remember the morning that the Massachusetts ruling came in, I was at the printing office, getting the papers printed.
The papers clearly said that no decision had been made yet. While the papers were running, the decision was announced. Being a monthly paper, I was a month late with the news. That's the way it happened sometimes. One time I endorsed a candidate, and by the time the paper came out, he had been denounced as a spousal abuser and was not even running anymore.
I never put full-time [activism efforts] towards gay marriage until [Windy City Times owner] Tracy Baim called me and said that she was putting together a group of people to stage a march on Springfield.
At the time, I had signed on with Equality Illinois to be a field representative for the summer, to promote people writing their legislator. All of a sudden I found myself wearing two hats that could have been a conflict of interest, because Equality Illinois was not necessarily in favor of the March on Springfield. I had to discuss that with my two groups without making the other side mad, and we worked that out. So from the summer of 2013 on, my top activism priority was marriage equality. … Until November of that year, I ate, drank and slept marriage-equality.
WCT: What was the March itself like as an experience?
BC: There were 13 co-chairs. All of them served a function. I happened to be the only one that lived in Springfield, Illinois. … I felt like I had an awfully big load to carry. Every time a permit needed to be filed, or a fee needed to be paid, I was the one who had to run down to the courthouse and take care of it. I was very busy in getting ready for it. I was down here by myself trying to cover all the bases.
WCT: What was the actual day of the march like?
BC: It was very interesting. We had the march on Springfield Oct. 22, and I was so dead tired that once the march started, I went home and went to bed. Once we got the rally over with, I didn't stay for the march itself.
That week, my ISP went out of business, while I was getting 300 emails a day, so I was setting up a new email address and getting a new provider. At the same time, we had a very old dog that we had decided to let die at home. We had decided against medical care for him because he was old and tired.
We had a neighbor file a complaint against us, saying that we were starving him. He was losing weight but he was eating. So the county told me that I had 10 days to get him to the vet and get a report that said he had had medical care and that there was nothing we could do but put him down. So we had him put to sleep, as I was trying to coordinate with 12 other people about putting on a march on Springfield. It was a very hectic, tiring and tough week.
WCT: Were you there when the bill passed in the house the next month?
BC: Absolutely, and I was invited when Gov. Quinn signed it into law. I had my train ticket purchased and I woke up that morning just deathly ill. I wasted the price of ticket and I did not go. I deeply regret that.
WCT: How long before you and Jerry married?
BC: We could not marry until the following June 2. Sometime in the vicinity of April or May, we got around to considering it. So many people were going to go down and get married that first day, and we decided that we didn't want to be a part of that. 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 weddingit's on Youtube and I go back and watch it periodically.
WCT: What do you think are the most pressing concerns for LGBT folks who live downstate?
BC: Closets. What I was told when I moved to this state, I have found to be so true. I have seen so many people badly treated and harassed because they were living a lie. They weren't being harassed because they were gay, they were being harassed for living a lie. As I mentioned earlier, a man here told me that if I was honest, people would always love me.
I married a man who was from a town of 400 people. 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.
View previous segments at www.windycitymediagroup.com/lgbt/Downstate-activist-Buff-Carmichael-talks-husband-the-Prairie-Flame/68796.html and www.windycitymediagroup.com/lgbt/Buff-Carmichael-reflects-on-his-life-and-downstate-activism/68616.html .