Winning by putting yourself second

Rugby union player David Pocock is angry.

He’s angry on behalf of a lesbian couple he knows and loves.

“The tipping point was my housemate in Perth and the amazing relationship she has with her partner. Seeing their love for one another and the joy and wholeness it brings them – then hearing condemnation of that ...  it just made me angry, to be honest.

"I couldn’t keep quiet while people I loved dearly were being penalised for their sexuality – something they can do nothing about.” 

Pocock is what I’m going to call a ‘me-second’ campaigner – somebody who campaigns on behalf of others for no personal gain.

The white anti-apartheid South African 

I first encountered me-second-ism when, as a guest of the Action for Southern Africa organisation, I met a white South African anti-apartheid activist, Denis Goldberg.

He was imprisoned at the Rivonia Trial that also led to the famed incarceration of Nelson Mandela in the 1960s.

Of the trial’s 10 defendants, Goldberg was the only white man convicted. He was sentenced to life imprisonment, but was eventually released 22 years later.

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At his Cape Town home, Goldberg spoke of the "isolation" he felt at being a white campaigner against apartheid and the inspiration he took from standing in solidarity with Mandela. He told me how it kept him going when he knew other hugely important things – his wife and his family – were suffering.

Are ‘me-second’ campaigners heroes, or martyrs? To find out, I spoke to several other individuals who devote their lives to fighting other people’s causes.

The straight champion of gay equality

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David Pocock backs up his words with a poignant lack of action - he and partner Emma have pledged to refuse to enter into marriage until it’s open to same-sex couples in Australia (they held a commitment ceremony in 2010).

It’s something they came close to when, for five-and-a-half days in December last year, same-sex marriage was legal in ACT, where Pocock plays for the Brumbies.

He says: “The best thing about it was that we got to hear the stories of the actual people whose lives these decisions affect. Oh, and also the sky didn't fall during the few days of marriage equality in Canberra - which no doubt many anti-equality groups predicted.”

His public stance comes at a personal cost.

"There have been some fairly awful things emailed to me and messaged to me on social media. My parents and Em's parents have even experienced a kind of second-hand backlash from people who've heard about our stance and questioned them about it.’’

Pocock is quick to brush off the ‘selfless hero’ label when I push it on him: “I don't necessarily see it as 'me-second', because while racism, sexism or homophobia may not be seen to 'affect' me as a white heterosexual male, I believe these things diminish all of us.

‘‘And while I don’t personally experience racist taunts, slut shaming or homophobic bullying, these things make the world a fairly awful place, as well as deeply affecting people I care about. So, as far as I'm concerned, we all have a vested personal interest, not just a secondary interest, in doing something about it.”

The male feminist

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Senthorun Raj set up Men and Feminism, an online initiative, after a workshop at a feminist conference. Its aim is to “engage men in conversations about gender and equality’’.

Not everyone feels men should be allowed to call themselves feminists; the All About Women festival at the Sydney Opera House in 2013 culminated in a debate titled Men Can’t Be Feminists.

I was one of the few men in the audience – perhaps proof in itself that feminism either excludes, or doesn’t seem inviting to, men. In fact some have wanted to throw Raj out of the feminist "club".

Surely feminism, like gay rights, will have a greater chance of achieving its goals - and a broader appeal - if it invites as many as possible into the club.

Raj, however, appreciates that he comes at feminism from a different perspective: “As a man, I approach feminism with a set of social privileges. Feminism is diverse, so even when people identify as a 'feminist' you cannot assume they have a fixed set of ideas.

‘‘I’m more concerned with the politics people practice, rather than the label they use.”

The pro-Palestine Jew

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Antony Loewenstein is an Australian-Jewish opponent of Israel. Having spent time in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza and written two books on the subject, he says it’s his “responsibility as a human first, and a Jew second, to speak out when injustice occurs committed by my people’’.

He says while growing up in Melbourne, he attended Sabbath meals with his family. 

‘‘I recall discussions about Israel and Palestine and the casual racism expressed towards Arabs. I didn't have the knowledge then or language to forcefully respond but it made me distinctly uncomfortable.”

If he didn’t have the forceful language back then, he’s certainly learnt it since.

“Too many politicians and journalists stay silent and endorse Israeli policies out of a deluded sense of solidarity. Their silence shames us all.”

He admits that his stance puts plenty at stake. “My parents have been partly ostracised by many in the Melbourne Jewish community ... and I continue to receive hate mail and occasional death threats for daring to support the Palestinians.”