When Neal Gottlieb, 37, of San Rafael, made it to the top of the highest peak in Uganda, he decided to protest the East African country's harsh anti-gay law by placing a rainbow flag on the summit.
Gottlieb, founder of Marin's popular Three Twins Ice Cream company, placed the colorful flag, which has long been a symbol of gay rights, at the top of the 16,763-foot-tall Margherita Peak on April 16 after a six-day climb. A few weeks after booking his trip, the country passed its Anti-Homosexuality Act, and Gottlieb was moved to take a stand against it.
"My godfather was both gay and Jewish and throughout the years I've had many friends of all different sexual orientations," Gottlieb said. "It's abysmal the government would institutionalize hate."
Under Uganda's new law, which was signed in February by President Yoweri Museveni, anyone who participates in same-sex relations is subject to life in prison. The bill initially proposed sentencing offenders to death, but was softened after Western nations threatened to cut financial aid to Uganda.
In addition, the Ugandan government drafted a new bill this week to punish civic groups that meddle in domestic politics and promote "bad cultures" such as gay lifestyles. If the measure is passed by parliament, civic groups will be required to declare all their programs, sources of funding and spending to local authorities. Those who don't cooperate or meet the standards will lose their licenses.
This would have a huge impact on the more than 500,000 gay people living in Uganda out of a total population of 31 million, according to numbers from a 2007 estimate by human rights organizations.
For Gottlieb, smuggling a rainbow flag into a country hostile toward gay rights proved easier than he had initially thought. He said he spent three weeks staring at the flag and contemplating what to do, at one point even sewing the flag into the hood of a jacket.
"I debated quite a bit about how to actually hide it. I ultimately decided to hide it in plain sight," he said. "I bought a California flag to fold it up inside of and placed it inside the laptop compartment of my backpack."
Gottlieb and the flag then made an arduous journey to the peak, trekking through muddy bogs and frigid weather. As an experienced climber who has ascended Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania and tall mountains in Nepal and India, the Ugandan mountain proved challenging for Gottlieb.
"The trek in was so much more difficult than we anticipated. It rained and hailed on us," he said.
But the comments he's received from supporters and colleagues made it worth the effort.
"Overall the response has been amazing. I've received emails from around the world," he said.
LGBTI activist and former South African resident Melanie Nathan, of San Anselmo, said she's received mixed reactions about Gottlieb's actions. Nathan is a lawyer and founder of Private Courts, a Bay Area advocacy and conflict resolution practice. She also writes a blog, oblogdeeoblogda.me, focused on Uganda's Anti-Homosexuality Act and raises funds to help those in the country who have been banished from their villages or lost their jobs because they are gay.
Nathan said while critics had the perception that a white colonist was trying to go in and change Uganda's laws, those suffering in the country flooded her inbox with positive emails about Gottlieb. She said his move was risky, but much needed.
"By putting a flag up there, he could be construed as promoting homosexuality under the new act," Nathan said. "The promotion law could give you three or four years in prison."
Nathan said the act is based on a notion that homosexuality can be encouraged and that people can actually be recruited to become gay. She said the government sees gay relationships as sexual acts and doesn't value the love behind those couples in the LGBTI community that simply want to grow old together.
As part of his symbolic statement, Gottlieb sent a letter to Uganda's president criticizing the country's treatment of the LGBTI community. While he doesn't expect any ramifications from it, he doesn't plan to return to Uganda.
At this point, he's just pleased to have received words of thanks from people all over the world.
"I had no idea this would mean so much to so many people," he said.