Robbie Pierce, his husband and their two young children were enjoying a scenic train ride on the Pacific coast, a peaceful prelude to their spring break getaway. But at the end of their journey from their home in Los Angeles to Oakland, California, the couple said a man sitting across the aisle turned their family vacation into a nightmare.
“He started yelling across me and shouting, ‘Remember what I told you!’” Pierce recalled, saying the man’s remarks were directed at his 6-year-old son. “The next thing he said was, ‘Marriage is between a man and a woman. They stole you, and they’re pedophiles.’”
The shouting started as the Amtrak train was stopped at Diridon Station in San Jose, Pierce said. Immediately, he and his husband, Neal Broverman, stood up and got in between the unidentified man and their children, who started sobbing.
“I’m not a big guy, but I wasn’t nervous,” Broverman said. “When you’re dealing with your children and you feel like they’re being threatened, you’re kind of fearless. It’s kind of that mom lifting the car scenario, but it was hideous, and it was not stopping.”
The man continued to shout at the family of four, yelling, “That’s not a family! You’re rapists and pedophiles. You steal Black and Asian children and you rape them,” Pierce and Broverman said. The couple has an adopted son, who is Black, and a 5-year-old Asian American foster daughter.
Before speaking with NBC News about the Tuesday night incident, the pair documented the event in a now-viral Twitter thread. Along with detailing the encounter, the couple placed blame for the incident on the recent uptick in charged rhetoric concerning LGBTQ issues.
In recent weeks, conservative politicians and pundits have been characterizing opponents of Florida’s newly enacted Parental Rights in Education bill — dubbed the “Don’t Say Gay” bill by its critics — as trying to “groom” or “indoctrinate” children, and in some cases accusing them of being “pro-pedophile.”
The legislation bans teaching about sexual orientation or gender identity “in kindergarten through grade 3 or in a manner that is not age appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students in accordance with state standards.”
Opponents of the measure say that it could prevent youths and teachers from openly talking about themselves and their families and that it is “designed to attack LGBTQI+ kids.”
At the Florida bill-signing ceremony in late March, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who is widely believed to be considering a run for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination, slammed the law’s critics, saying they “support sexualizing kids in kindergarten” and “camouflage their true intentions.” He added that the law would ensure “that parents can send their kids to school to get an education, not an indoctrination.”
Last week, Rep. Majorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., tweeted that “Democrats are the party of killing babies, grooming and transitioning children, and pro-pedophile politics,” in reference to the Florida legislation. And from March 17 through April 6, Fox News aired 170 segments on transgender issues and regularly characterized the legislation’s opponents as “groomers” and “predators,” according to a report by Media Matters for America, a liberal nonprofit media watchdog.
The word “grooming” has long been associated with mischaracterizing LGBTQ people, particularly gay men and transgender women, as child sex abusers and had, at least in the past decade, appeared to be relegated to the margins of the far-right movement.
Pierce and Broverman said this was not the first time their family has had hate directed at them in public. They said that sometimes strangers will taunt them with “the f word” and other homophobic slurs. Broverman also recalled an episode where a driver rolled down his window and asked the pair’s children: “Did they kidnap you?"
But Pierce and Broverman described this latest incident as more “aggressive” and “egregious” than past instances, adding that it was the first time a verbal attack came “laced with talking points from right-wing media and legislators.”
“As soon as he started saying ‘pedophiles’ and things like that, I thought he just seemed like he came preloaded with these statements,” Pierce said. “So, I thought, ‘Ugh, OK, we’re dealing with someone who’s consuming right-wing media.’”
Several minutes after the shouting erupted, Amtrak employees came to address the situation. Pierce took his children to a different car, while Broverman remained behind to discuss the situation with Amtrak personnel.
The train’s conductor demanded that the unnamed man leave the train, but he refused, Broverman said.
“He said, ‘I’m not getting off. You’re going to have to kill me before I get off the train,’” Broverman recalled. “It was very serious before and even more at that point.”
Amtrak officials then called the Santa Clara Sheriff’s Office for backup. The train was at Diridon Station for roughly 40 minutes before police were able to escort the unnamed man off of the train, Broverman said.
Police for Santa Clara and officials at Amtrak did not address NBC News’ query about whether the man had been arrested.
The Santa Clara Sheriff’s Office confirmed in a statement that “deputies responded as an assisting agency” but directed NBC News to officials with Amtrak Police for more information.
Amtrak said in a statement that it “strongly condemns this reprehensible act of hate” and that it was “conducting a full investigation on this incident.” It added that it is looking into potentially banning the unidentified man from Amtrak.
It wasn’t until the couple went back to their hotel room that their son told them that the man who had harassed them had approached him beforehand in the bathroom — which was just below the parents’ seats on the double-decker train — telling him that his parents “stole” him.
“These people who are allegedly so concerned about pedophiles and rapists are following children to the restroom and talking to him out of earshot of their parents, telling them about sexual issues,” Pierce said. “It’s just frightening. It’s so hypocritical, and it makes me as a parent feel powerless.”
“Even here in our hotel room he won’t use the bathroom by himself right now,” Pierce added. “He’s so frightened of bathrooms because of what happened.”
The couple said that throughout their trip the incident has weighed on their kids, with both of them bursting into tears periodically. Their son woke up in the middle of Wednesday night and threw up, they said, adding that he’s done that in the past after previous traumas.
Pierce and Broverman said that given the recent rhetoric, they expect similar incidents will happen to them again, as well as to other same-sex parents. But they hope that in sharing their story, they can help counter the “normalization” of this language, they said.
“It can feel a little bit harmless to say something like that in passing or in a tweet, but then that message builds and builds and it snowballs and then it gets to someone like the person that we encountered the other night. They buy into it, and it’s taken to a scary new level,” Pierce said. “And the children are the ones who end up suffering.”
“I’m done letting these people pretend that they care about protecting children or not harming them, because this rhetoric is directly harming my children,” Pierce added. “So, if you want to talk about who’s endangering children, it’s anybody who’s sharing these lies.”