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Wednesday, Sept. 10, 2008 08:01 am

Putting out the flame

After 11 years of publishing a newspaper for the gay community, Buff Carmichael calls it quits

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Carmichael: “I guess what I’m most proud of is putting the word out in small communities that the kid who sacks groceries in whatever small store they have isn’t the only gay person in the state.”
PHOTO BY JOE COPLEY

When Buff Carmichael started his own monthly newspaper in 1996, he took it to the closest printer he could afford, in a town just about 25 miles away. The printer agreed to produce Carmichael's paper on one condition: that Carmichael deliver his flats by 6 a.m. on production day, and depart with his bundles of newspapers no later than 8 a.m.

This early-morning press run was neither necessary nor convenient for anyone involved. The printer made this demand for one reason only: because Carmichael's newspaper, the Prairie Flame, focused on the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered community. The print shop owner was terrified that customers would disappear if they discovered that the printer did business with — gasp! — homosexuals.

Instead, after the first 13 issues, it was the Flame's business that the printer lost. Carmichael did some math and realized that he had spent a significant chunk of change with a company that didn't support him.

"I was putting $4,800 a year into a business that was homophobic," he says.

Carmichael found a friendlier printer in Astoria, Ill., and over the next 11 years, the Flame grew and prospered. From an inaugural issue of eight tabloid pages, it grew to average 12, and sometimes as many as 16 or 20. From a print run of 2,000 copies, it grew to 9,000. And from a distribution area of Springfield, Jacksonville and Decatur, the Flame eventually covered all of central Illinois, and as far north as the Quad Cities.

Along the way, Carmichael won the respect of not only the GLBT community, but also the broader population of Illinois liberals. In 2003, he was one of a handful of recipients of the American Civil Liberties Union's statewide Harry Kalzen Freedom of Expression award.

"The admirable thing about Buff is that he never stops," says Robert Wesley, president of the ACLU's Springfield regional steering committee. "He has been a leader in the GLBT community for a long time, and he works with people who want to advance civil liberties for everybody."

Martha Miller, a Springfield writer who has published several novels in addition to being a regular Flame columnist, says Carmichael cultivated relationships with lawmakers through his coverage of issues important to the GLBT community, plus annual picnics with politicians.

"Every election, we waited to see who Buff was going to endorse. He's a very influential guy," Miller says. "He really became kind of a mover and shaker, especially in our community, and probably, whether you realize it or not, in yours, too."

An issue of the Prairie Flame from February 2007 illustrates the paper's nonpartisan stance. “This cover showed a good Republican and a bad Democrat,” Carmichael says. The article about the late President Gerald Ford discussed his policies of inclusivit

Carmichael doesn't describe himself as a mover or a shaker. In fact, he jokes that, in some ways, his newspaper was a flop: he founded the Flame aiming to "get these people off their barstools and realize there's plenty of stuff to do in Springfield," and, after 12 years, he never achieved that goal. "In that regard, we are total failures," he says with a smile. "The same people are sitting on those same barstools, complaining that there's nothing to do in Springfield."

In other ways, however, the Flame was a raging success, simply because it documented the existence and humanity of a segment of the population that many central Illinoisians prefer to ignore. And Carmichael, as publisher, put the face on that population, instantly becoming the easy-access spokesperson for the GLBT community and the most "out" gay man in Downstate Illinois.

"I hope I've been an example. All these years later, I'm still here. Nobody's shot me; nobody's burned my house down," he says. "I don't mind giving myself a little credit for making it a whole lot better than it was when I came here."

You might think the newspaper name Prairie Flame is a play on words, but there's nothing flaming about Buff Carmichael. At 61, his sandy hair is starting to gray at the temples, and he wears glasses and a wardrobe of denim and earth tones. He's not tall or short, he's not fat or skinny, he's not muscular or flabby, he's so in between he could melt into the woodwork. He's blunt, but soft-spoken, with a lilt of a drawl (he's a Texan), and the impeccable timing of a comedian.

For example, when he talks about seeking advice from another local publisher back in 1995, when he was trying to start the Flame, Carmichael pauses with just a hint of puzzlement on his face: "Hmm. He hasn't returned that call yet."

Wesley, the ACLU president, says that Carmichael's relaxed personality allows for cool conversations about hot-button topics.

"He's the kind of person who's just going to be upfront with you, but he's not pushy," Wesley says. "He's not going to shout you down. He's going to talk with you, if you're willing to talk. And if you're not, then he won't be either."

Carmichael came from the most conservative spot on the U.S. map — Waco, Tex., home of Baylor University, the world's largest Baptist college — where he was born into a family of ranchers with a colorful history.

His grandfather, known as Billy Carmichael, was murdered in 1894, three months before Buff Carmichael's father was born. His mother remarried, but soon died. Raised by his stepfather, Carmichael's father grew up being called "Buff" for so long that the family lost track of the reason why. Carmichael has a theory: "The only son of a guy named Billy, you'd assume that his name would also be Billy," he says. "And in those days, to a Texas ranch family, the hero would be Buffalo Bill. So he was nicknamed Buffalo Bill, and it shrunk down to Buff."

When Buff himself came along, in 1947, he was named Buff Carmichael, Jr. A decade later, when his father was dying of cancer and needed legal documents to qualify for medical benefits, relatives unearthed evidence that his name wasn't Buff but rather William Thomas Carmichael, Jr.

Since this discovery also meant that then-10-year-old Buff wasn't really "Buff Jr.," he was presented with the opportunity to change his name to William Thomas Carmichael, III, or to keep Buff and delete the "Junior." Rejecting both options, Carmichael asked if he could keep his name just as it was, and instead have his father get a legal name change to Buff Carmichael, Sr., which he did.

"That's why I always tell people my father was named after me," he says.

Like many gay men of his era, he struggled mightily to ignore his natural orientation, and married in 1968.

"I was desperate to not be gay, plus I loved my wife, and I wanted children," he says (he's the father of four). "I was determined to make the best of it."

In 1977, his wife discovered his secret. After counseling, they decided to stick together, though they had what he describes as "a sort of open marriage." They separated in 1985, for issues unrelated to his sexual orientation, though the timing probably saved both their lives, coinciding as it did with the advent of the AIDS epidemic.

"My solution to protecting my marriage was to not have sex with anybody twice, and for god's sake don't find out what their name was," he says. Ironically, being single freed him to find a stable, healthy relationship. He and partner Jerry Bowman have been together 16 years.

"When I look back at my life, I realize how I've evolved," Carmichael says. "Life is a journey, and we're all on the same journey. Some of us just stop longer at different places along the way."

In 1985, Carmichael's journey led him out of provincial Waco and Lubbock, Tex., to metropolitan Dallas, where he hoped to work for his two pet causes — advocating for gay rights, and advocating against the death penalty. In Dallas, he found that the gay community was so immense and so well-established, it didn't need him. "I wasn't cute enough, or rich enough," Carmichael says. So he devoted his spare time to anti-death-penalty activism.

When his job transferred him to Illinois in 1992, he found the opposite situation: Death penalty activism was being handled by volunteers in Chicago, but central Illinois' gay community had a shortage of leaders. Within a year of arriving in Springfield, he had become male co-chair (there was also a female co-chair) of the Central Illinois Gay and Lesbian Task Force.

It didn't take long for Carmichael to realize the toughest part of that job was finding suitable space to have a meeting: The facility had to have a back door accessible from a rear parking lot, because some people worried their employers were watching to see whether they attended these meetings. Carmichael found such a concept sadly amusing: "I told them that if your boss goes to all the trouble to watch this meeting, he probably already knows you're gay."

This leadership position thrust Carmichael into the role of spokesperson for the GLBT community. In July 1994, a man charged with murdering gays in three states escaped from authorities and was allegedly seen in Springfield. A State Journal-Register reporter called Carmichael for comment, and he agreed to be quoted as the task force co-chair. Immediately after the interview, Carmichael — then a temporary employee at a state agency — went to his supervisor and told her why his name would be in the newspaper the next day. "Overnight my closet was gone," he says.

The following morning, his boss brought her chair over to his desk, sat beside him and told him that anything he did on his own time was his own business. Then she reminded him to never use state time, state office supplies, state telephones, state computers, or anything else in his spokesperson role. Afew months later, he was hired as a permanent employee. This experience confirmed what Carmichael had been told about the Midwest.

"When I first moved here, somebody told me that Illinois people are wonderful. As long as you're truthful, they'll take you as you are," Carmicheal says. "I took that as my cue to be just as out as I wanted to be."

Apparently not everyone else followed that logic. Carmichael, who has no journalistic training himself, spent several years trying to get more qualified people in the GLBT community to start a newspaper. Failing that, he tried to get more qualified journalists to advise him. He finally found Tony Moyer, publisher of a local literary magazine, who showed him how to use Microsoft Publisher. Pretty soon, Prairie Flame was born.

The paper tackled hate crimes, same-sex marriage, "don't ask, don't tell" regulations, and of course HIV/AIDS. Carmichael called it "advocacy press, with the bias right up front." Occasionally, he had to cover a gay crime, such as the time a Decatur man accidentally strangled his lover to death, or some infighting among members of the gay community.

But it wasn't all serious stuff. Carmichael and his volunteer bureau chiefs publicized social events, weddings, mardi gras celebrations, drag shows, and parties. Carmichael envisioned his paper as a purely positive force in the GLBT community.

"We were cheerleaders. Whatever anybody was doing was a good thing. Keep on doing it," he says.

He credits Martha Miller with creating loyal readers. Her novel Life on the Levee, about the history of gay bars in Springfield, was first published a half-chapter per month in the pages of the Flame. When she found a publisher for her book, Carmichael stopped printing the half-chapters and Miller began contributing a column called "Martha [Lesbian] Living" — a butch send-up of Martha Stewart's magazine.

"I just started out with this recipe that is just butt-ugly simple for people who don't cook, and lesbians have that reputation for not being good housekeepers," she says. "It kept my name out there, and I'm sure it sold books for me. It was kind of a mutually beneficial arrangement."

For Carmichael, and his partner Bowman, putting the paper out became a true labor of love. They spent the first weekend of each month distributing and shipping papers, the second weekend sending out invoices to advertisers, the third weekend gathering and writing news articles, and the last weekend getting the paper laid out for the printer. At least that's the schedule they tried to observe. In practice, jobs frequently piled up at the end of the month.

"There would be a parade in St. Louis, a meeting in Peoria, and we'd lose one of those weekends altogether, which meant we would stay up till midnight every week for two weeks," Carmichael says.

He never calculated the number of hours spent at the paper per month, but figures it was usually about 60, often slammed toward the bottom row of the calendar. But he could have made the job easier on himself. While most newspapers carry a 50/50 mix of ads and articles, or even 60/40, Carmichael made sure that Flame devoted twice as much space to articles as advertising.

"We've never made any money at all," he says.

On the day the paper was printed, Carmichael and Bowman would drive 65 miles northwest to Astoria, load up the paper, drop bundles with distributors in Peoria, Bloomington, Champaign and Decatur, and then hit distribution points around Springfield. Over the next few days, Bowman would ship bundles off to DeKalb, Rockford, the Quad Cities, Galesburg, Joliet, McComb, Charleston, Mattoon, and Kinmundy, Ill.

The number of papers varied widely. Champaign got 1,000; Peoria and Bloomington got 600 apiece. DeKalb got 700. Kimundy got 25. Springfield got the most — about 1,300 copies, distributed at bars, both college campuses, several churches, the county health department, the Health and Human Services department of human relations, Barnes & Noble, Flowers with Love, Traveling Treasures, Penny Lane, Food Fantasies and several restaurants. The most popular pick-up point in Springfield: the downtown public library.

"You never knew whether it was because people were reading it," Carmichael says. "I went up there at night one time, and homeless people sleeping outside were using Prairie Flames to cover up with."

Despite the grueling schedule, the result was worth it to Carmichael. He has frequently been quoted as saying he believes there's somebody who is HIV-negative today instead of HIV-positive, because he picked up a Prairie Flame, and somebody alive because he picked up a Prairie Flame instead of committing suicide.

"I guess what I'm most proud of is putting the word out in small communities that the kid who sacks groceries in whatever small store they have isn't the only gay person in the state," Carmichael says.

n March of this year, the cost of putting out the Flame became so high it no longer broke even. Fuel, utilities, shipping, delivery, printing — the price of everything went up, so Carmichael closed the paper.

Since then, he and Bowman have been busy finding a home big enough to accommodate the contents of the office plus their previous residence, and moving everything into the new place, in Woodside Township. They're sorting through bills they owe, and bills owed to the paper. But Carmichael is plagued by visions of how he would cover a story that's in the news or publicize various events. Twelve years of publishing has put the news business in his blood.

"Yeah. But not enough to go back and do it again," he says.

He's on the board of directors for the ACORN Equality Fund and for the SARA Center. He's not sure exactly where he'll channel the energy that went into the Flame; all he knows is that he'll find a place eventually.

"Activism," he says, "doesn't die that way."

Contact Dusty Rhodes at drhodes@illinoistimes.com.

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