What’s in a flag? That which we raise in the name of altruism still smells as imperialist.

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SUMMARY: Neal Gottlieb’s planting of a rainbow flag on Uganda’s highest peak was dangerous for more reasons than the mountain’s weather. With the flag, Mr. Gottlieb brought the baggage of homonationalism, imperialism, and more importantly, ammunition for potential backlash against LGBTI individuals in Uganda. The moral of the story? Activists, even the most well-intentioned, must think before they act.

July 1, 1898: Colonel Theodore Roosevelt and his Rough Riders mount a US flag on San Juan Hill after their victory in the battle for San Juan Heights. 

February 23, 1945: Six US Marines raise an American flag on Iwo Jima’s Mount Suribachi after capturing the island.

April 16, 2014: American Neal Gottlieb single-handedly plants a rainbow flag on Uganda’s Margherita Peak.

One of these flags is not like the others. Nationalism, imperialism and the defense and forceful spread of ideology clearly inform the historical contexts of the first two, while the last is peaceful by nature, calling attention to an altruistic affirmation of universal human rights. Or at least that’s how Neal Gottlieb, American ice cream entrepreneur turned LGBT activist must have seen it while planning a Ugandan pit stop on his round-the-world holiday last month. Citing the memory of his gay godfather, Mr. Gottlieb was inspired to bring the flag along after Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni signed the Anti-Homosexuality Act this February.

Unfortunately, these flags have more in common than Mr. Gottlieb is likely to admit. While we may like to think that human and LGBT rights are so fundamental that their defense is a matter of black and white, the historical reality infuses a great deal of ironic color.

The law, formerly known as the “Kill the Gays bill”, is the culmination of a complex story in which Ugandan political, religious, and social leaders, supported morally and financially by American evangelicals, have successfully portrayed homosexuality as a result of contemporary western influence. President Museveni himself has referred to homosexuality as a “decadent culture…being passed by Western nations”. This is to say nothing of the direct link between Section 145 of Uganda’s criminal code, outlawing “carnal knowledge…against the order of nature” and British colonial anti-sodomy laws. The resultant fusion of sexuality and national identity has left current Ugandan LGBT advocates in the unenviable position of either defending sexual identity and legitimating claims of cultural imperialism, or reframing same-sex practices in Uganda as ‘authentic’ or ‘indigenous’ and abandoning the more politically expedient and legally precedented link of sexuality to identity. At stake in either option is the right to claim both freedom of sexual expression and a Ugandan identity.

Gottlieb’s action does a number of things to exacerbate this already precarious political reality:

1. He emphasizes that homosexuality is a cause of concern and importance for the west, strengthening the positions of those who have gained from asserting Ugandan autonomy and independence from western influence.

2. He quite literally realizes claims of links between homosexuality and imperialism by planting a rainbow flag atop the country’s highest peak.

3. He connects members of the LGBT community in Uganda with his particular brand of in-your-face activism, inviting punitive backlash for the now two-in-one crime of being homosexual and affiliated with the west (It should be noted that this affiliation does not harm American evangelicals in Uganda given their readiness to decry the regression of western morality).

As a result, Mr. Gottlieb, however unwittingly, weakens the position of Ugandan LGBT advocates who pursue the first of the two aforementioned options. Their political will and motives become even more strongly associated with outside influences, eroding their legitimacy and claims to Ugandan identity. In this new twist on the savior complex, so easily traced and remembered from the legacy of missionaries and empire across the continent, Ugandans are now not only ‘saved’, but potentially even more outcast from their own communities in the process.

These potential hazards could have been avoided if Mr. Gottlieb had consulted with those whom this law and its surrounding political reality effects, namely LGBT Ugandans – but he didn’t. Although he does offer a disclaimer at the end of his letter to Mr. Museveni admitting that the actions were ‘his and his alone’, he tellingly attempts to absolve not LGBT Ugandans, but his trek guides and fellow climbers of responsibility. Last week, the fabulously ferocious local NPR station KQED host Mina Kim pressed him on the potential backlash of his actions. Mr. Gottlieb seemed to have given a bit more thought to the matter and assured Ms Kim that he ‘definitely did consider the ramifications of all parties involved’, though ‘as an experienced, inexperienced activist, (he) wasn’t necessarily aware that there was a set of guidelines’. (Both Ms Kim and Radio France International also questioned Gottlieb on the marketing potential the action had for his company, to which Mr. Gottlieb appropriately responded that he wished they wouldn’t even mention it.)

Perhaps if he was aware, he would have known that activists such as Geoffrey Ogwaro, co-chair of a key civil coalition opposing the law, opposed such actions at the time (the very necessity of this response is the perfect example of what distracts Ugandan activists from their work and ties them to foreign influence).

It is difficult to take issue with such a well-intentioned and impassioned act on behalf of the LGBT community – and let me be very clear – it is not motivations I question here. After all, activists and academics often have to plead audiences just to stand up and speak out, let alone climb mountains (although it should be noted that this climb was planned before the action was). But our actions must nevertheless be considered. We live in a time when the realities of too many in the LGBT community involve daily threats of imprisonment and even death. Yes, this makes action and participation all the more urgent and necessary, but it also elevates the risk, especially for those on whose behalf we claim to act. There is an alternative to the false dichotomy of doing something or doing nothing, namely, doing something intelligently, with the support, blessing, and help of those for whom we act.

A first step towards supporting through support might be to consider what Ugandan activists have publicly called for, or even just listening to Ugandans speak on the matter of alliance and actions in solidarity.

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