Robbie Pierce, her husband and their two young children were enjoying a scenic train ride along the Pacific Coast, a peaceful prelude to their spring getaway. But at the end of their trip from their Los Angeles home to Oakland, Calif., the couple said a man sitting across the aisle turned their family vacation into a nightmare.
“He started yelling at me and yelling, ‘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 robbed you, and they are pedophiles.’”
The screaming began when the Amtrak train was stopped at Diridon Station in San Jose, Pierce said. Immediately, he and his husband, Neal Broverman, stood up and came between the unidentified man and their children, who began to sob.
“I’m not a big guy, but I wasn’t nervous,” Broverman said. “When you’re dealing with your kids and you feel threatened, you’re a bit fearless. It’s a bit of that mum bringing up the car scenario, but it was hideous, and it just wouldn’t stop.
The man continued to yell at the family of four, shouting, “It’s not a family! You are rapists and pedophiles. You steal from black and Asian children and rape them,” Pierce and Broverman said. The couple have an adopted son, who is black, and an adopted 5-year-old Asian American daughter.
Before speaking with NBC News about the Tuesday night incident, the couple documented the event in a now-viral Twitter thread. In addition to detailing the encounter, the couple blamed the incident on the recent increase in charged rhetoric regarding LGBTQ issues.
In recent weeks, conservative politicians and pundits have branded opponents of Florida’s recently enacted parental rights in education bill – dubbed the “Don’t Say Gay” bill by its critics – as trying to “prepare” or “indoctrinate” children, and in some cases accusing them of being “pro-paedophiles”.
Legislation prohibits teaching about sexual orientation or gender identity “from kindergarten to grade 3 or in a way that is not appropriate for the age or development of students in accordance with the standards of the state”.
Opponents of the measure say it could prevent young people and teachers from speaking openly about themselves and their families and that it is “designed to attack LGBTQI+ children”.
At the bill signing ceremony in Florida in late March, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who is widely believed to be considering running for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination, slammed critics of the law , claiming that they “support the sexualization of children in kindergarten” and “cover up”. their true intentions. He added that the law would ensure “that parents can send their children to school to receive education, not indoctrination”.
Last week, Rep. Majorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., tweeted that “Democrats are the party that kills babies, grooms and transforms children, and pro-pedophile politics,” in reference to Florida legislation . And from March 17 to April 6, Fox News aired 170 segments on transgender issues and regularly called opponents of the legislation “groomers” and “predators,” according to a report from Media Matters for America, a watchdog liberal non-profit.
The word “grooming” has long been associated with the miscategorization of LGBTQ people, particularly gay men and transgender women, as child sex offenders and has, at least for the past decade, seemed to be relegated to the margins of the extreme right movement.
Pierce and Broverman said this isn’t the first time their family has been hated in public. They said sometimes strangers taunted them with “the f-word” and other homophobic slurs. Broverman also recalled an episode where a driver rolled down his window and asked the couple’s children, “Did they kidnap you?”
But Pierce and Broverman described this latest incident as more “aggressive” and “blatant” than previous instances, adding that it was the first time a verbal attack had been “mingled with talking points from the media and right-wing lawmakers. “.
“As soon as he started saying ‘paedophiles’ and things like that, I thought it just seemed like he came preloaded with those statements,” Pierce said. “So I thought, ‘Ugh, OK, we’re dealing with someone consuming right-wing media. “”
Several minutes after the screams broke out, Amtrak employees came to deal with the situation. Pierce took his children in another car, while Broverman stayed behind to discuss the situation with Amtrak personnel.
The train conductor demanded that the unnamed man leave the train, but he refused, Broverman said.
“He said, ‘I’m not going down. You’re going to have to kill me before I get off the train,” Broverman recalled. “It was very serious before and even more so then.”
Amtrak officials then called the Santa Clara Sheriff’s Office for backup. The train remained at Diridon station for about 40 minutes before police were able to escort the unnamed man off the train, Broverman said.
Santa Clara police and Amtrak officials did not respond to NBC News’ question as to whether the man had been arrested.
The Santa Clara Sheriff’s Office confirmed in a statement that “deputies responded as an agency for assistance,” but directed NBC News to Amtrak police officials for more information.
Amtrak said in a statement that it “strongly condemns this wrongful act of hate” and is “conducting a full investigation into this incident.” He added that he was considering potentially banning the unidentified man from Amtrak.
It was not until the couple returned 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 would be so concerned about pedophiles and rapists follow kids to the bathroom and talk to him out of earshot of their parents, telling them about sexual issues,” Pierce said. “It’s just scary. It’s so hypocritical, and it makes me feel helpless as a parent.
“Even here in our hotel room, he won’t be using the bathroom on his own yet,” Pierce added. “He’s so scared of the toilet because of what happened.”
The couple said that throughout their trip, the incident weighed on their children, with both periodically bursting into tears. Their son woke up in the middle of Wednesday night and vomited, they said, adding that he had done this in the past after previous traumas.
Pierce and Broverman said given the recent rhetoric, they expect similar incidents to happen again, as well as other same-sex parents. But they hope that by sharing their story, they can help counter the “normalization” of this language, they said.
“It might seem a little 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 we met 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 they care about protecting children or not harming them, because this rhetoric directly harms my children,” Pierce added. “So if you want to talk about who puts children at risk, it’s anyone who shares these lies.”
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