By Dean Obeidallah
(CNN) — Peter Berg is a successful Hollywood director, helming hit movies like Lone Survivor and TV shows like Entourage. Many may also recognize him for his acting work in films and television, including his current role on HBO’s new series Ballers.
But now when I hear the name Peter Berg, I only think of the hateful transphobic meme he shared on Instagram shortly after Caitlyn Jenner received the Arthur Ashe Courage Award at the ESPY Awards on Wednesday night.
Berg posted a photo featuring U.S. Army soldier Gregory Gadson, who lost both legs in combat, side by side with Jenner. Beneath their photos appeared the words: “One man traded 2 legs for the freedom of the other to trade 2 balls for 2 boobs. Guess which man made the cover of Vanity Fair, was praised for his courage by President Obama and is to be honored with the ‘Arthur Ashe Courage Award’ by ESPN?”
Hateful memes on social media are nothing new. And often our media will highlight the hateful spewings of people with literally a handful of followers on social media, thereby elevating their opinions to levels they don’t deserve.
In this case, however, Berg is not an unknown coward hiding in the darkness spreading hate. He’s a well-known person in Hollywood and beyond who has, no doubt, worked with people in the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community. He may even tell us in the next day or two that he has many LGBT friends. It’s hard to imagine that Berg is not keenly aware of the unique and often life-threatening challenges that members of that community face.
As Women’s World Cup soccer champion Abby Wambach noted when introducing Jenner at the ESPYs, a recent study found that 41 percent of transgender Americans have attempted suicide. Now to put that number in perspective, 4.6 percent of the total U.S. population attempts suicide. That number jumps to 20 percent for lesbian and gays.
You see, the words of Berg and others matter. And to be blunt, the image that Berg posted adds to a culture where transgender Americans are made to feel like they don’t belong, that they are freaks or worse. That not only can lead to them trying to take their own lives but inspire others to attack them physically.
Indeed, Jenner highlighted this point in her speech Wednesday night. She spoke of 17-year-old Mercedes Williamson, “a transgender young woman of color” who was “found in a field in Mississippi stabbed to death.”
And also “Sam Taub, a 15-year-old transgender young man from Bloomfield, Michigan,” who took his life. As Jenner remarked, “Every time something like this happens, people wonder, ‘Could it have been different, if spotlighting this issue with more attention could have changed the way things happen?’ ” She added poignantly, “We’ll never know.”
There’s no defending Berg’s post. I’m sure, though, some will claim that he didn’t mean to be hateful but was simply comparing Jenner with the wounded warrior, which they view as fair. It’s not.
We don’t compare every person honored for courage to every other possible candidate out there. For example, ABC’s Robin Roberts received the Arthur Ashe Courage Award in 2013 for her public fight with cancer. I don’t recall her being demonized by Berg or others as not deserving of the award because she didn’t lose limbs in combat.
The reality is that the meme Berg shared was simply about demonizing a group of people who are different. It is about “otherizing” Jenner and people like her.
I’m not a member of the LGBT community so I have not experienced the challenges its members face firsthand. As a Muslim American, I know full well the feeling of being demonized, not for something I did personally, but simply for my faith. But there’s still really no comparison. We don’t endure the same daily struggles that members of the LGBT community face.
However, as a person many also consider an “other,” I was inspired by the eloquent words Jenner offered Wednesday night. I was especially moved when she addressed the question as to why she went public with her journey. Was it for the attention? For the publicity? Jenner said no, adding it is not “about one person.”
She said: “It’s about all of us accepting one another. We’re all different. That’s not a bad thing. That’s a good thing.”
In fact, I’d say it’s a great thing that we are all different. I just hope the Peter Bergs of our country will one day understand that.
Dean Obeidallah, a former attorney, is the host of SiriusXM’s weekly program “The Dean Obeidallah Show.” He is a columnist for The Daily Beast and editor of the politics blog The Dean’s Report. He’s also the co-director of the documentary “The Muslims Are Coming!” Follow him on Twitter: @TheDeansreport. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.