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The Queer Triumph of Robert Uplinger

The Queer Triumph of Robert Uplinger
How a local arrest led to a historic result in the U.S. Supreme Court

Thirty-one years after he appeared for the defendant in People v. Uplinger, a pioneering legal defense of gay rights that he argued before the U.S. Supreme Court, William H. Gardner can recall the dramatically tense and “absolutely hushed” atmosphere in the imposing and packed courtroom. He remembers his apprehension as he rose to address the nine justices and the very serious potential consequences of the case, legally, socially and politically.

As perhaps millions of Americans await the Supreme Court’s imminent decision in the same-sex marriage case before it, it’s particularly appropriate to revisit the Uplinger case, and the roles a local man and his Buffalo attorney played in an earlier challenge to discriminatory official restrictions on New York State’s gay population. In basic terms, at stake were two New York statutes—one outlawing consensual homosexual sodomy, and the other, loitering for the purposes of same-sex relations. Robert Uplinger, a thirty-something Buffalo teacher, was arrested in 1983 and charged with publicly sexually propositioning an undercover Buffalo police officer. (Uplinger had insisted the officer had approached him as he spoke with several friends on North Street.)

At the time, it seemed to many there was a distinct inconsistency in the enforcement of this statute: Three years earlier, Gardner had taken a case from this city to the New York Court of Appeals in Albany, arguing that the anti-sodomy law was constitutionally invalid. In that one, People v. Onofre, the appeals court, in a landmark decision, agreed. The result was the culmination of a long effort by Gardner, a prominent corporate lawyer at a large firm. In the infrequent arrests under this law, the defendants would plead guilty, sometimes to a lesser offense, to avoid public attention. It took Gardner years to find someone willing to plead innocent.

These were the days when Buffalo police recorded the license plates of vehicles parked outside gay bars, and sometimes raided them on various alleged violations. (It was during this period that one night then-city council member Norman Bakos parked himself on a stool near a Main Street gay bar’s dance floor for hours in what many patrons regarded as an attempt at intimidation.)

But if sodomy was no longer illegal, how, a lot of people asked, could loitering for the purpose of same-sex encounters be prosecutable? In effect, the New York appeals court asked the same question. When Gardner took Uplinger’s case to the Albany court, it invalidated this law. “We won totally in Albany,” he says. But Erie County District Attorney Richard Arcara—now a federal district judge with retirement status—sought the Supreme Court’s permission to appeal the New York ruling. This upped the ante considerably because Arcara’s application to the court indicated he would also challenge the earlier nullification of New York’s consensual sodomy statute, a strategy that would, if successful, provide a legal justification for the loitering statute. This was a very worrisome prospect. It seemed to Gardner, and to a lot of legal experts, far from clear that the court would reject this pleading.

But Arcara eventually, and doubtless unintentionally, provided a change of fortune for Uplinger and New York’s gays. Gardner recalls what happened: “Richard began to get pressure from ‘the better people, from the socially respectable women’” who didn’t like this display of trying to suppress gay life in this city. So, on that historic day at the Supreme Court, “he changed his position in his argument” and dropped his defense of the sodomy statute. “He stepped back” to arguing that what he hyperbolically called “ a stag line” along North Street didn’t have to be tolerated by the public.

The court, however, responded as if it had been taken by surprise. A majority of members had apparently believed that a defense of the consensual sodomy law was a constitutionally relevant case “But when we got to oral arguments,” Gardner says, “he questioned his own position.” And the justices ruled that they had “improvidently granted certiorari”—leave to argue an appeal—because they’d thought a different kind of case would be presented.

This was a stunning stroke of good fortune, Gardner makes clear: “There’s no question that if Richard hadn’t given in {on that portion of his case} it would have gone against us. We would have lost.” He points out that not long afterward, the court ruled in favor of Georgia’s sodomy statute in Bowers v. Hardwick. But the New York decisions against the two statutes stood as a result of this case, a victory for pro-gay forces.

Gardner says of the late Robert Uplinger, “That guy was heroic. He was absolutely dauntless.” He recounts that there was an effort to have him removed as Uplinger’s lawyer, particularly from an activist in Chicago, who told Gardner he should “hand the case over to some constitutional expert.” When he told his client this, Uplinger replied, “Bill, I hired you. You are not to even talk to these people, or I’ll fire you.”

“This was the first time an openly gay man came to the Supreme Court” to protest that his rights were being infringed upon, Gardner says. The case, in his view, was critical: “It became a part of the development of national attitudes.”

Gardner is retired from a senior partnership at the Hodgson, Russ firm, but he’s long had a virtual second career in unpaid volunteer work, representing everyone from anti-war protestors to indigent criminal defendants. The highly regarded Buffalo-based defense counsel Joel Daniels, who has worked with Gardner, calls him “the smartest man, tireless, an indefatigable advocate. And he’s a regular guy, a good guy. His pro bono work is outstanding.”

Gardner, active in a number of local organizations, including the Gay Men’s Chorus, thinks People v. Uplinger remains one of the important events in the struggle to lift the oppression of gay citizens, to truly render them equal before the law in this country.

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