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Climber Claims Uganda Peak for LGBT Equality

by Heather Cassell
Sunday May 4, 2014

Neal Gottlieb, the founding twin of Three Twins Ice Cream, has taken the world by surprise by raising the rainbow flag atop the tallest peak in Uganda during a six-day climb to the summit.

But his symbolic gesture did not dissuade Uganda lawmakers from introducing more anti-gay proposals.

Gottlieb, a 37-year-old straight man who lives in Sausalito, traveled to Uganda April 7-22 to climb the Rwenzori Mountains, also known as the Mountains of the Moon, which is the only equatorial peak and divides the Congo and Uganda.

What was different about this trip is that this is the first time Gottlieb, and by extension his popular organic ice cream company, has ventured into global LGBT politics.

On April 23, Gottlieb posted a photo of himself atop the Margherita Peak standing next to his rainbow flag along with an open letter to Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni on his Facebook page announcing what he did during his vacation.

The Petaluma-based company usually is more festive, celebrating the LGBT community during San Francisco Pride at its scoop shops with "Going Gay as a $3 Bill," selling $3 pints of fun gay-inspired flavors such as "Harvey Milk and Cookies," "Dorothy's Ruby Slipper," "Bear Bait," and "Two Tops Don't Make a Bottom."

The Bay Area Reporter spoke with Gottlieb during a phone interview from Wisconsin, where he is opening a new factory.

Originally, the trip was just an interesting challenge to climb the only equatorial peak in Africa and an excuse to return to the continent, "Which I love very dearly," he said.

Gottlieb served in the Peace Corps in North Africa and has traveled through Kenya and Tanzania.

"I thought this climb would be great," said Gottlieb, a part-time mountain climber who has scaled Tanzania's Mount Kilimanjaro and a 20,000-foot mountain in Nepal prior to his recent climb of Mount Stanley's 16,753-foot Margherita Peak.

Gottlieb had purchased his plane tickets to Uganda several weeks before Museveni signed the country's Anti-Homosexuality Bill into law February 24, he said.

The law broadens the criminalization of same-sex relations, and includes stiff penalties, including life imprisonment.

"It just popped into my head one afternoon and I knew I had to do it," said Gottlieb, who was appalled and bothered by the president's actions.

But he didn't want to turn away from fulfilling his years-long dream to climb the peak, so Gottlieb began planning on what he would do to make an impact during his trip, he said.

"As a human I couldn't imagine living in a country where I could be locked up for being who I am," said Gottlieb, whose late godfather was a gay Jewish man.

He saw putting the flag up at the top of the mountain as an act of recognizing people's fundamental human rights, to send a message to Ugandan officials and people that the issue isn't going to disappear, and to support LGBT Ugandans.

"It seemed like a rare opportunity to not only put up such a strong symbol that would signify to people that the rest of the world does in fact care and that there are people working on fixing the atrocities that they are living under," said Gottlieb, who didn't meet with local LGBT activists during his trip.

During the weeks he prepared for his trip he stared at the rainbow flag he purchased to take with him knowing that he could be arrested for simply having it in his possession. He worked out multiple ways how to smuggle it into the country, but in the end he hid the rainbow flag folding it inside a California Republic flag and putting it in an envelope next to his laptop in his backpack.

He figured if he was searched the customs officials might not know what the flag was, he said. Officials never searched him.

"I didn't get searched in the end," said Gottlieb. "So, it was a lot of consideration for nothing."

Even the Ugandan guide with him at the peak assisted him with putting the flag up.

The photo and his letter to Museveni daring him to take the flag down went viral with mostly gay media outlets picking it up. His action has received some criticism about Westerners imposing their values upon Africans, but mostly support, he said.

His act of defiance also didn't deter Uganda's parliament from proposing new anti-gay legislation. This week cabinet members began drafting a proposal banning non-governmental organizations from assisting LGBTs or interfering in Ugandan politics, confirmed Frank Mugisha, executive director of Sexual Minorities Uganda.

"It's terrible," said Gottlieb, concerned about the affect on HIV/AIDS organizations. "It's going to kill people. It's not just going to kill gay people; it's going to kill straight and gay Ugandans who are suffering from AIDS. It's just absolutely awful and it's nonsensical and inhumane. It's very upsetting."

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