"History is always happening" at Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site
Little Rock attorney Scott Strauss, like a lot of men, has been touched by breast cancer. Strauss' mother is a two-time breast cancer survivor, and has participated in the annual Susan G. Komen Foundation Race for the Cure, which draws massive crowds to downtown Little Rock every October every year.
The problem, however, was that Strauss — as a man — wasn't able to officially enter the race and walk with his mother. Therein lies, for him at least, the rub.
Under the rules of the Little Rock Race for the Cure, only women and male survivors of breast cancer (around 400 men a year die of the disease) are allowed to officially sign up to run or walk the five-kilometer course. The city blocks off public streets for the race. That, Strauss contends, is a violation of the Equal Protection clause of the 14th Amendment.
With that in mind, Strauss sat down on June 11 and wrote a letter to the Little Rock mayor, vice mayor and city attorney — which he CC'd to the city board and several local news organizations — calling into question the legality of using public facilities for an event that makes a distinction based on gender. Citing case law in which similar circumstances have been found to be discriminatory, Strauss asks the city to require the Komen Foundation to require “gender neutral registration as a condition precedent for its exclusive use of the City's downtown thoroughfares.”
Does Strauss have a point? Maybe. Should he have thought it over a bit more before taking a jab at the 800-pound pink gorilla of Little Rock civic events, which lures tens of thousands of participants? Almost surely.
Little Rock television station KTHV ran stories on Strauss' letter on June 14 and 15, and the result has been like a wave of Pepto-Bismol-colored napalm. Under what Strauss said is the mistaken impression that he planned to file a lawsuit to resolve the issue, anonymous posters on Internet message boards have since called him everything but a child of God. While a few have agreed with Strauss, others have questioned (and that's putting it kindly) his intelligence, his compassion, his motives, his profession and his sexuality. One person on the KTHV message board — after calling Strauss a jerk and a loser — suggested that his clients abandon him, saying that women should picket outside his office. Another suggested that he would next file suit because they don't let cows race at Oaklawn, and because women's bathrooms don't have urinals. Another said that he was probably mad because the Race for the Cure made him miss his tee time one Saturday (“I don't even play golf,” Strauss said).
“There have been some fairly mean-spirited things said about me,” Strauss said. “One said I should start the Race for the Morons or something like that.”
Strauss said he wasn't prepared for the backlash his letter inspired. During our conversation, he repeated several times that he thinks the Komen race is a great event, for a great cause. He believes the majority of the anger is coming from those who haven't read his letter, which he called “almost a sterile exposition of the law.”
“I am not protesting the Race for the Cure,” Strauss said. “It's a great event. I wrote a letter to my city government asking that they follow what I perceive the law to be.”
Little Rock City Attorney Tom Carpenter believes that the use of city streets for the race is legal, and disagrees that it is discriminatory. “Mr. Strauss has withdrawn his interest in this issue,” Carpenter said, “particularly based on the fact that they [The Komen Foundation] note that men can run in it. It's pretty much common that men do that around the country.”
Sherrye McBryde is the executive director of the Little Rock branch of the Susan G. Komen Foundation, which sponsors the Race for the Cure. She said that she believes the Race for the Cure is legal and shouldn't be changed.
“Our volunteers as a group feel like we've got something unique and special and very empowering and they would like it to stay the way it is,” McBryde said. “There's this wonderful support system in having just women there together. It's a very powerful statement, to say women can beat breast cancer and they're doing it together.”
McBryde said that since the first Race for the Cure, originally held in Dallas and since exported to cities all over America, the event has been primarily female-centered. Though only women and male survivors of breast cancer are allowed to officially enter, McBryde said that organizers would never pull a man out of the race if he wanted to run or walk. When it comes to official activities to include males, there is a special program called “Three Miles of Men” in which male supporters cheer on the women participating in the race, and a “Family 2K” that's open to anyone who wants to enter. “We do not feel like we're being discriminatory,” Strauss said. “We want men to be a part of our event.”
McBryde hasn't spoken with Scott Strauss, but said she welcomes opinions about how the Race for the Cure is conducted. Though she doesn't relish the controversy, it does have a silver lining: that maybe through reading stories about who is allowed to register for the race, men will realize that they are vulnerable to breast cancer as well. Beyond that, McBryde just hopes to get back to the big picture.
“I want the focus to be on the incredible need in our state,” she said. “There are 25 counties that don't even have a mammography machine — that's one out of three counties … To me, that is far more newsworthy than whether a man can be in our race.”
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