What was supposed to be a fun family trip turned into a nightmare when a man walked up to a gay married couple, called them “pedophiles,” and accused them of stealing their two young children.
Robbie Pierce recounted the horror of the verbal attack that caused both of his children, ages 5 and 6, to cry, and his husband, Neal Broverman, to get up to shield them from the unidentified man as Pierce took the children away.
"All of a sudden there was a man there, just standing there and shouting," Pierce told BuzzFeed News in an interview. "'Remember what I told you! They stole you! They're pedophiles!' At that point I was like, this is something really awful and homophobic."
The incident occurred April 12 on the Amtrak train traveling to San Jose, California. Pierce said the man kept shouting homophobic rhetoric.
"He was standing there for probably a full minute," Pierce said. "I told him, 'Get away from us, get away, stop talking to my son, get away from our family!' Both children were just sobbing."
The man continued to yell.
"That's not a family! You're rapists and pedophiles. You steal Black and Asian children and you rape them."
Pierce detailed most of the incident in a Twitter thread, which has since gone viral with 30,000 retweets and almost 160,000 likes.
This isn’t the first time Pierce encountered anti-gay and racist remarks. He spoke about other incidences that were sparked by the fact that he is Hispanic and his son is Black.
"If we were of the same race, I don't think some people would jump on it," he told BuzzFeed. "Other times, they knew that we have legal custody of them. They just didn't approve of it."
A spokesperson for Amtrak told BuzzFeed the conductor reported the incident after observing the interaction. Officials then held the Coast Starlight Train 14 at the Diridon Station and contacted the Santa Clara Sheriff's Office to respond.
Another passenger, Jennifer Parker, said the man continued to threaten passengers when Pierce and his family moved away, and refused to get off the train when ordered to.
"If they kill me I'm ready to die!" she said the man shouted.
"It was extremely distressing to say the least," she added. "People in the car were offering verbal support [to the family] but it was drowned out by his yelling. A woman said that if she were a man she'd get up and punch him."
Before this encounter, their 6-year-old son told them that the man approached him while he was in the bathroom hours earlier and that he tried to tell him that he had been “stolen” by his adopted parents, according to Pierce.
"I asked him, 'Is that why you were scared to go to the bathroom again?' and he just cried and hugged me," Pierce said.
Amtrak officials called the event an "act of hate" in a statement.
"We apologize to the family onboard who were involved in this heinous incident," the statement reads. "Amtrak strongly condemns this act of hate and will conduct a full investigation to ensure our customers feel valued and respected when riding our trains."
Amtrak officials said they’re considering banning the customer from its trains in the future. It’s also not clear if the man was arrested or issued a citation by law enforcement.
Pierce said that what stood out for him on that day was not another attack his family faced again, but the language the man used, according to BuzzFeed.
Words like “stole,” “pedophiles” and “rapists” sound like QAnon conspiracists and right-wing rhetoric that create false and hateful accusations about LGBT people, even painting them as “groomers.”
Many LGBT activists believe laws like the “Don’t Say Gay” one in Florida are fueling this type of rhetoric and are worried incidents such as this one will become more frequent.
Brandon J. Wolf, press secretary for Equality Florida, said in a text message to the Los Angeles Blade, “Remember, it was Gov. Ron DeSantis’ team that injected this ‘groomer’ messaging into the public in a massive way to justify his ‘Don’t Say Gay’ classroom censorship and book banning legislation. He has stoked hatred, division, and violence.”
The Parental Rights in Education law bans all classroom topics on sexual orientation and gender identity in K-3. However, it is so vaguely worded that it could apply to any grade level.
"He just seemed like he came preloaded with catchphrases from Fox News or DeSantis, or whoever was out there," Pierce said.
Pierce told BuzzFeed that his children continued to cry and kept asking if the man was coming back.
"I had to explain bigotry in terms that a preschooler and kindergartner can understand," Pierce said. "Sometimes people don't like our family because they don't know us."
But he couldn't promise his kids they wouldn't face something similar again.
"I wish I could tell them this wouldn't happen again. I wish I could stop it," Pierce said. "I wish I could stop it."
The family plans to try to enjoy the rest of their vacation for now. They don't have any specific plans or activities beyond letting their children dictate what they want to do.
"I know a large goal is to just drive us into our homes and make us not come out," Pierce said. "And we're not going to do that. We're going to go out and continue to be brave."
Besides the hate-fueled exchange with the man on the train Pierce also noted on Twitter how some people are calling his accusations fake and denying the incident ever took place.
“I don't care about the ‘It didn't happen’ [...] crowd, but if you do, BuzzFeed did their research,” he tweeted, referring to the BuzzFeed story SFGN used as the basis of this article. As noted above, BuzzFeed interviewed an eyewitness who corroborated Pierce’s story.