Michael Bemis died peacefully at home on Saturday, June 3 under Hospice care following a brief illness. Michael lived a passionate life full to capacity with experiences, love, and friendships. Born in Beloit, Wisconsin, he spent his first 14 years in the central Andes of Peru where his father worked as a mining engineer. Speaking fluent Spanish and learning Quechua from the local indigenous people, he cherished his South American cultural roots throughout his life. He returned to Peru—and later Argentina—many times. He completed his education in the U.S. and UK before serving in the Peace Corps in Peru in the early 1960s. By 1964, he was attending graduate school “endlessly” (in his words) at UW-Madison. He became active in protesting the Vietnam war, came out as a gay man, and joined the Gay Liberation Front.
He embarked on a career as law librarian for the Wisconsin Department of Justice and began to explore the newly emerging gay culture of the 1970s. He wanted to collect all the gay literature he could find, but soon limited his collecting to poetry by or about gay men. After 30 years of collecting on his travels, he donated more than 1000 rare works to the UW Special Collections at Memorial Library as the Bemis-Flaherty collection. Our Lives featured Michael in the September/October 2008 article, “The Literary Legacy.”
Grieving and motivated by the loss of so many of his friends, Michael started working as a volunteer with the newly formed Madison AIDS Support Network in 1985. He cared and advocated for men at a time when many, sometimes including their own families, would not.
Michael’s legacy lives on in his contributions to preserving gay history and culture, and his passion and service to the gay and 12-step communities in Madison and beyond. He is survived by his partner/husband Duane Hansen, his daughter, grandchildren, brothers, sister, his “favorite” nieces, and a huge circle of friends and loved ones all over the world.