Welcome to Gay Places with Dr. Jeffry Iovannone. PBN’s newest blog series is dedicated to celebrating and learning more about the historic LGBTQ landmarks of Western New York. With this space we will highlight the work of Dr. Iovannone and other guest writers to provide insight to the LGBTQ history associated with our existing historic built environment- narratives which are frequently forgotten, ignored, or purposely left out.
140 North Street, Buffalo, New York
By Dr. Jeffry Iovannone
140 North Street, located in the historic Allentown neighborhood, just west of Delaware Avenue, is the site of the Lenox Hotel. The Lenox, originally known as the Lenox Apartment House, was designed by architects Loverin & Whelan and constructed in 1896 as a 24-apartment building. In 1901, the property was transformed into a 48-room luxury hotel for women and men of economic means who came to visit Buffalo’s Pan-American Exposition. The exposition coincided with Buffalo’s economic height, and the style and function of the Lenox reflected this with its elaborate and ornamental detailing.
At the time, Loverin & Whelan described the Lenox Apartment House as “Venetian Gothic.” From a twenty-first-century architectural perspective, the building contains elements of what we now call Chateauesque style. Chateauesque was briefly popular in the United States between 1880 and 1910. The style is based on the grand sixteenth-century chateaus of France and contain a mixture of both Gothic and Renaissance details. Chateauesque was popularized in the United States by Richard Morris Hunt, the first American architect to study at France’s prestigious Ėcole des Beaux-Arts (School of Fine Arts). Hunt was influenced by the nineteenth-century revival of Chateauesque architecture and, upon returning to the United States, created similar buildings for his wealthy clients. Chateauesque has several identifying features, including steeply pitched hipped roofs; busy roof lines that contain elements such as spires, turrets, or gables; dormer windows; metal cresting on the roof ridges; and arched windows and doors.
The first two stories of the Lenox are constructed of washed brick and terra cotta and the upper stories of buff brick and terra cotta. The building is divided into two wings with a recessed courtyard in between. In its original condition, the Lenox featured an entrance portico with terra cotta ogee arches (an arch with two serpentine curves that meet at an apex), Renaissance detailing, and a balustrade with finials. The building also featured arched windows and doors with ogee hoods and Renaissance detailing, molded cornices, and metal cresting along the roof line. Many of these character-defining features were removed upon subsequent remodelings of the Lenox, particularly during the 1940s and in 2005 when the building was sold to new ownership.
Robert Uplinger, who went by “Bob” or “Bobby,” moved to Allentown in the early 1970s to be near his own kind: Buffalo’s gay community. He took up residence in the Somerset apartment building located at 228 Summer Street, one block north of the Lenox. Bob, an out gay man, grew up on Buffalo’s West Side and was secure in his sexuality from a young age. “I didn’t see anything wrong since it was my natural orientation,” he later explained. “It was a fact, and I couldn’t help it if others were unable to understand it.” Beginning in the late 1960s, Allentown became associated with Buffalo’s gay commuity, in addition to artists, musicians, and other bohemians. Racial tensions on the East Side caused white-owned gay bars to relocate west of Main Street, and anti-vice campaigns centered around Chippewa and Washington streets forced gays and sex workers to move their nightly operations northward.
Standing at five feet three inches tall, Bobby Uplinger was short in stature but had personality in abundance. After receiving his M.A. in Elementary Education, Uplinger took a Civil Service job teaching troubled youth within the Buffalo schools. He was out to his family, friends, and co-workers and was highly respected by gay and straight memebers of the community. Uplinger also participated in the local gay organizations Gay Professionals and the Mattachine Society of the Niagara Frontier and was a practitioner of Eastern philosophy and meditation.
Bob was a popular and well-known fixture of the gay Allentown crowd. On the hot, muggy night of August 7th of 1981, the then 30-year-old Uplinger, clad in a tank top to both stave off the mid-summer humidity and increase his chances of finding a companion, went to a local gay bar (most likely Mean Alice’s/City Lights or the Villa Capri). Later, as he walked home along North Street around 3 A.M., Uplinger noticed a handsome young man sitting on the steps of the Lenox Hotel (the steps have now been replaced by a semi-circular driveway). The section of North Street between Delaware Avenue and Irving Street, where the hotel was located, was a popular “cruising” area for gay men and male and female sex workers.
“Hi, how are you?” the ever-personable Uplinger asked as he walked over to the young man. The two struck up a conversation, and Bob even introduced the young man to a few of his friends who passed by. Their casual banter continued until a police car drove up and the officer told the group to “move on.” As Uplinger and the young man walked toward the corner of North and Irving Street, Uplinger asked if he wanted to go back to his apartment. “Why?” the young man asked, to which Uplinger countered, “Well, do you just want to come over?” “No, I’m scared with the police. I’m going to leave,” the young man responded. Uplinger, growing impatient, made the following offer: “If you drive me over to my place,” he said, “I’ll blow you.”
These were the exact words the young man wanted to hear—but not because he was hoping to make a sexual connection with Uplinger. The young man was, in fact, Buffalo Police Department undercover vice officer Steven Nicosia. Nicosia was part of an undercover campaign to scare gay men away from cruising in the residential areas of Allentown. The campaign was initiated by Erie County District Attorney Richard J. Arcara, who claimed that police received frequent complaints about the sexual cruising activities of gay men in Allentown. Given the neighborhood’s historic status, Arcara worried gay men were sullying Allentown’s reputation and terrorizing its heterosexual residents by flaunting their homosexuality in public.
Chosen for his boyish good looks, Nicosia, as a rookie vice cop, was eager to prove himself. He arrested Uplinger on the spot at the corner of North and Irving streets. Uplinger hadn’t recognized Nicosia as an Allentown regular and had, earlier in their conversation, asked if he was a police officer, which Nicosia denied. As he was taken to the police car—the same one that drove by earlier—Uplinger realized the design of the BPD’s undercover campaign. He was booked for violating a section of the New York Penal Code, which prohibited “loitering in a public place for the purpose to engage in deviate sexual intercourse or other sexual behavior of a deviate nature.” Uplinger remained calm and collected as he was put into the police car, asking Nicosia and his superior officer what the charges against him were, and why. Uplinger felt they acted fairly towards him, but when they arrived at headquarters, the officer who took his mugshot said, “Because of people like you, we have to make extra fingerprints and send them to the FBI.” He presumably meant “deviates,” like Uplinger and his kind, forced the BPD to do extra work.
The night of August 7th of 1981 was not Bob Uplinger’s first run-in with an undercover police officer, however. When he was 18, Uplinger had been kicked out of a private Catholic high school in Buffalo after the principal discovered he had been picked up by an undercover officer downtown in a former gay cruising area. This was in 1969 when gay bars in Buffalo were few and far between, so gays would meet on Washington Street. Uplinger, who had been “out” since age 15, was senior class president, a four year letterman in track, and a member of the debate, drama, and glee clubs. Despite being an upstanding and engaged student, Uplinger’s principal called him “sick and depraved.” A priest at the school, whom Uplinger had confided in about his arrest, broke his code of ethics and informed the principal. Uplinger was forced out four months prior to his graduation, but received his diploma anyway. The judge placed a gag order on the case due to Uplinger’s age, and his attorney, who had him plead to a lesser charge, assured him he wouldn’t have a record. This was actually untrue, and following his second arrest, Uplinger learned that he did, indeed, have a criminal record.
A friend of Uplinger’s came down to the station and paid his $100 bail. He had already decided he would fight the charges. “What really angered me,” Uplinger later explained in an interview, “was the fact that here I was, a tax-paying citizen who has a responsible job, walking home from a nearby gay bar in a predominantly gay neighboorhood I’d moved into 10 years ago, and because I asked an attractive man to go home with me in a casual, non-threatening conversation, I was arrested… I wasn’t being obnoxious or pushy, just talking in a normal way.”
Uplinger called Buffalo attorney William H. Gardner. Bill, as Gardner was more colloquially known, had made a reputation for himself representing gay men who were targeted by the BPD for sodomy or loitering charges. He had, in fact, helped a friend of Uplinger’s who was arrested previously. Gardner graduated from the University at Buffalo School of Law with his Juris Doctorate degree in 1959 and was a senior partner at the law firm Hodgson Russ. As a young lawyer, he observed how gays and lesbians were routinely harassed by the Buffalo police. The instruments used to carry out their campaign of persecution were sections of the New York Penal Code that outlawed consensual sodomy and loitering. As Gardner explains:
“Given my responsive horror to the attitudes of the authorities against the gay population in Buffalo, the only way I figured we could overcome that was to mount a crusade to overrule the laws that they were enforcing so vigorously.
I let various folks and gay organizations know that if they brought me people, I would represent them for free. If they wanted to make a case and fight the system, I was ready to do that. I was confident that sooner or later someone would show up who wanted to fight and not be a victim.”
Gardner received permission from his firm to take some of these cases pro bono, and throughout the 1960s, he routinely represented those charged under the consensual sodomy and loitering statutes. In 1970, Gardner also represented Buffalo restaurant-owner James F. Garrow when his attempts to open a gay bar and community center on Delaware Avenue were thwarted by the BPD.
Gardner’s willingness to challenge the police stemmed from more than a personal commitment to those in need of defense and his belief that the statutes used to target gays were unconstitutional. Bill Gardner was struggling with his own sexuality. He had lived the life he thought he was supposed to. After serving in the United States Army and attending law school in the 1950s, Gardner got married and had children. It was not until the 1980s that he acknowledged his own homosexuality. By then, he had become the bane of the Buffalo Vice Squad. Gardner himself had been arrested for “cruising” in LaSalle Park, but was spared from the media and further maltreatment because of his reputation.
“Do you want to fight this?” Gardner asked Uplinger. “We can go as far as we have to take it.” Bob was certainly ready to brawl, though he was not the first to take Bill Gardner up on his offer. One of the first successful attempts to overturn a state sodomy statute was People v. Onofre, a 1980 case in which a consensual relationship between two adult males became the subject of a criminal prosecution in Syracuse, New York. Ronald Onofre initiated a consensual sexual relationship with a 17-year-old male, unnamed in the court records. The relationship deteriorated and the young man, in anger, went to the police seeking revenge, alleging he had been coerced into the relationship. Onofre and his attorney provided evidence the relationship was, in fact, consensual, but the District Attorney proceeded to charge him under New York’s misdemeanor consensual sodomy statute. First adopted in New York State in 1965, the statute made it a misdemeanor for anyone to engage in “deviate sexual intercourse.”
As Onofre’s case worked its way to the court of appeals, Bill Gardner was busy defending one of several sodomy prosecutions in the Buffalo city courts. Gardner’s clients were found guilty in the city courts, and their convictions were upheld in the Erie County Court. He thus saw the Onofre case as a vehicle for getting his clients’ convictions, and the consensual sodomy statute, overturned. Gardner filed an amicus brief on behalf of the National Committee for Sexual Civil Liberties to lend his expertise to the court of appeals consideration of Onofre’s case.
The opinion in Onofre’s appeal, issued on January 24th of 1980, found that the consensual sodomy law violated due process and equal protection under both the federal and New York State constitutions. Thus, the statute was struck down. The court of appeals’ decision in Onofre was a landmark in sodomy litigation for several reasons. First, the court equated heterosexual and homosexual sodomy and examined the issue through the concept of sexual privacy. Second, the ruling extended the concept of privacy to behavior formerly criminalized. Finally, in striking down the sodomy statute of one of the largest states in the country, hope was given to those struggling to decriminalize gay sexuality throughout the United States. Bill Gardner had issued his first major blow to the Buffalo police.
Guided by the momentum of this victory, Gardner moved to dismiss the charges against Uplinger on the grounds that New York’s anti-loitering statute was rendered unconstitutional as a result of the Onofre ruling. His rationale was that if it was now legal to have oral sex with a consenting adult in the privacy of one’s own home, then it was surely legal to inoffensively ask one to come to one’s home for that very purpose. Straight men, furthermore, often sexually propositioned women in an aggressive manner, yet were rarely, if ever, arrested for doing so.
Uplinger’s first trial was held on November 9th of 1981 in the city courts. Of those called to testify during the proceedings, Uplinger thought only Kenneth P. Kennedy, Captain of the Bureau of Vice Enforcement, was outwardly anti-gay. In his testimony, Kennedy asserted that connections between gay sexuality and child molestation were part of the reason for the crackdown in Allentown. The vice captain further claimed to be in possession of an informal book in which he logged complaints made to police regarding gay “cruising.” The BPD received at least four complaints per week, alleged Kennedy. However, when Gardner asked him to produce the book, Kennedy was unable to do so. Gardner’s questioning revealed what he long knew to be true: an atmosphere of systemic homophobia within the Buffalo Police Department. In the end, Judge Timothy Drury, who expressed fears the Allentown neighborhood was deteriorating, found Uplinger guilty. The case then went to the Erie County Court where Judge Joseph P. McCarthy upheld Judge Drury’s decision.
People v. Uplinger next made its way to the New York State Court of Appeals in Albany where a panel of seven judges voted 6-to-1 in Uplinger’s favor. “I argued that you couldn’t have a situation where consensual sodomy was OK, but inviting someone home to have consensual sodomy was illegal,” Gardner later recounted. The judges ruled that the loitering statute was both unconstitutional and improperly used. Gardner landed yet another blow, but District Attorney Arcara filed a petition with the U.S. Supreme Court, who agreed to review the case. When it became known that Bob Uplinger was headed to Washington, he was fired from his job within the Buffalo school system. Unemployed from mid-June of 1982 until October, he was forced to rely on support from his two sisters and brother. But Gardner, again, went to bat for Uplinger, and the impassioned educator was reinstated with seniority and back pay.
As Uplinger waited for the Supreme Court to hear his case, now restyled as New York v. Uplinger, he received a series of harassing phone calls from people he perceived as unhappy and maladjusted gays. “Why are you rocking the boat? You deserve to be arrested for being out at that time in the morning. Everything was fine until you upset the apple cart,” they would say before hanging up. Uplinger was further distressed that the leaders of Buffalo’s various gay organizations (approximately 12 at the time) were slow to reach out and hear his story. He attributed this to the prevailing notion that gays living in mid-sized, blue-collar cities such as Buffalo should remain closeted. Uplinger began to observe a change within the community, however, and saw his case as a way to buck Buffalo’s status quo.
As Gardner prepared for the Supreme Court, his nerves were rattled by a phone called he received from a representative of a national gay-rights group. “You’re out of your league,” the rep told him. “You should give up the case to a nationally-known constitutional lawyer.” Gardner felt he had just been chided by his high school principal. He presented this option to his client, but Uplinger remained unwavering in his support of Gardner. On January 18th of 1984, Gardner made his arguments before the nation’s highest court. He worried he would make a major blunder due to a combination of inexperience, tension, and fear—but he didn’t. The court, who issued their ruling on May 30th of 1984, ultimately dismissed the case. While the justices declined to rule on the merits in Uplinger, they did leave intact the ruling by New York’s Supreme Court that people could not be prosecuted for asking others to have “deviate sex” in the privacy of their own homes. While a landmark case, it is important to note that this Supreme Court decision, however, was not necessarily an affirmation of gay rights on the federal level. Just two years later, in Bowers v. Hardwick, the court, in a 5-to-4 ruling, upheld the constitutionality of a Georgia sodomy law, which criminalized private consenting sexualconduct involving same-sex copules.
Gardner had, from a legal perspective, solved the problems of sodomy and loitering within New York State. The BPD’s publicity-grabbing arrests ceased, and he turned his focus to his regular caseload. He also became more publicly involved in the gay community as a member of the Mattachine Society of the Niagara Frontier and the Buffalo Gay Men’s Chorus. “When you came out, you came out with a bang,” Gardner’s friend Jim Haynes told him, reflecting on the gravity of his legal victories.
Uplinger, too, re-immersed himself in his work with troubled youth, and helped to found Gay & Lesbian Youth of Buffalo (now Gay & Lesbian Youth Services of Western New York). Bob had a knack with young people, and despite being “an adult,” he easily earned their trust. Kate Gallivan, today the Senior Director of Grants Management at Evergreen Health Services, met Bob in 1984 when she started volunteering for GLYB. Volunteers would often co-facilitate Saturday discussion groups, and Kate often found herself paired with Bob, whom she liked immediately:
“He was firm but compassionate and a very good listener. He was down to earth and very empathetic. I remember him often taking one of our youth aside who was going through a hard time so that they could talk privately. It was a different time being gay then, and most of our youth lived in fear of someone finding out. Many were homeless and many were living double lives–“straight” during the week and gay when they were at GLYB. Bob spent a lot of time reassuring and empowering them, and letting them know they were ‘normal.’ They looked up to him, and I think he gave them hope because he was such a positive adult role model.”
In 1986, GLYB’s director, Mark Boser, informed the volunteers that Bob was moving to sunnier climes in Florida. It wasn’t long after that they learned he was sick, and just as quickly, GLYB received news that Bob had died from an AIDS-related illness. He was just 35 years old. Kate Gallivan, and many other members of the GLYB family, never had the chance to say goodbye. By then, the HIV/AIDS epidemic was ravaging gay communities across the country, Buffalo included.
To honor Bob’s memory, several members of GLYB came together to create a quilt panel for the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt. Envisioned by San Francisco gay activist Cleve Jones, the Quilt drew upon the medium of folk art to commemorate the lives of those who had died of AIDS. The idea was born in 1985 during a candlelight march to commemorate the assassinations of Supervisor Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone. Jones asked marchers to write the names of deceased loved ones on squares of cardboard that were then taped to the walls of the San Francisco Federal Building. Jones and his friends began making 4-by-6-foot quilt panels in their backyards with the intention to unveil their creation on the National Mall at the October 1987 Second National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights. The march that year drew around 500,000 people, and the NAMES Project unfolded a 1,920-panel quilt that represented more than 20,000 Americans who had lost their lives to AIDS or related causes.
While Jones and his comrades labored in San Francisco, in December of 1988, Bob Uplinger’s friends gathered at the home of Jim Haynes and Don Licht on 69 Johnson Park to create their panel. The design was a tree with multi-colored, heart-shaped leaves set against a pale blue background. Bill Gardner, of course, made a heart with the scales of justice. Jim Haynes’s heart included the initialism “MSNF” to symbolize Bob’s involvement in the Mattachine Society of the Niagara Frontier. Don Licht, Jim’s partner, made a heart that read “Love Grandma”—Bob’s nickname for him. Mark Boser contributed a heart with the GLYB logo. Kate Gallivan’s heart, finally, depicted Bob with the young people from GLYB gathered around him. He was the first friend she lost to AIDS. When the group assessed their work, they noticed the “n” in “Uplinger” was sewn on backwards. The imperfection lent character to the otherwise impeccable composition. “That was just Bob having the last word,” Jim Haynes commented.
Because of Bobby Uplinger, gay people could walk the early-morning streets of Allentown unharassed, though most did not know the story of the man upon whose shoulders they now stood. Bob, however, never really saw himself as a hero. He knew there was still much work to do:
“I’ve learned that you can lull yourself into a sense of false security, thinking that something like this only happens to somebody else. I did. I thought I lived in a pretty liberal neighborhood, never realizing that a few public officials could have such legal power to adversely affect people’s lives. I’ve matured no doubt… Fortunately, I’ve always had a gay consciousness that never needed raising.”
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Dr. Jeff Iovannone is an historian, writer, educator, and third-generation Buffalonian who holds a Ph.D. in American Studies, specializing in gender and LGBTQ studies. He is currently at work on a book about Buffalo’s gay liberation movement from the late 1960s to the early 1980s and is an avid collector of LGBTQ historical materials. He is the coordinator of the Women’s and Gender Studies Program at SUNY Fredonia and a board member of the Buffalo-Niagara LGBTQ History Project. You can find more of his writing on Medium and other platforms at https://linktr.ee/drjeffgenderprof.
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Jesse Strash, personal correspondence with author, May 15-16, 2019.
Kate Gallivan, personal correspondence with author, July 10, 2020.