Robbie Pierce and his husband embarked on a long train ride along the California coast with the couple’s two young children for a spring break trip.
Their six-year-old son was proud to have used the downstairs restroom near their seats by himself, twice, but he refused to go by himself a third time.
“He said he was afraid,” Mr Pierce tells The Independent.
As the Amtrak train pulled into Diridon Station in San Jose on 12 April, while the family was playing together and talking while in their seats, a man approached and screamed at their son: “Remember what I told you. They stole you. They’re pedophiles. They hurt kids.”
“It took a minute for me to process what was even happening,” Mr Pierce remembers. “At first I couldn’t tell if he was just a loud, gruff person, so I was waiting to understand the words he was saying, and it increased in volume and anger and he was completely shouting. Both of my children started crying, and he just continued to shout. I just said, ‘Move away, go away from us, get away from my family.’’”
Mr Pierce says the man shouted back: “That’s not a family. You’re groomers. You’re pedophiles.”
He continued to scream: “They raped our people. They’re going to rape you. They stole you.”
There were no Amtrak employees in the car. Passengers looked on, apparently unwilling to get involved.
Mr Pierce’s husband, Neal Broverman, an editor at Pride Media, stood between the man and Mr Pierce and the children so they could move to a different car, Mr Pierce says.
Eventually, an Amtrak employee tried to get the man to sit in his seat. Roughly one hour after the man started screaming, police removed him from the train.
In a statement to The Independent, a spokesperson for Amtrak said the rail service “strongly condemns this reprehensible act of hate.”
“To ensure our customers feel valued and respected when riding our trains, we are conducting a full investigation on this incident,” according to the statement. “This includes potentially banning the customer from future Amtrak ridership.”
It wasn’t until later that the couple’s son, who is Black, said that the man told him that his adopted parents “stole” him. Mr Pierce is Hispanic and Mr Broverman is white.
“Our son is adopted after having been in the foster system. We have a foster daughter as well. They have very different traumas,” Mr Pierce tells The Independent.
He asked his daughter whether the stranger’s shouting and anger reminded her of another time when someone was shouting and angry.
“She said ‘yes’. We just processed it through that lens,” Mr Pierce says.
It was not the first time the family endured anti-gay abuse or accusations that the couple “stole” their son. But it was the first time those attacks included the words “paedophile” and “groomer”.
The revived weaponisation of the word – along with baseless accusations of “paedophilia” among LGBT+ people – has followed a wave of legislation restricting classroom discussion of sexual orientation and gender identity as well as policies tageting transgender healthcare.
Homophobic and transphobic smears, characterising LGBT+ people as sexual predators and threats to children, have surged across social media within the first few months of 2022 and have increasingly materialised into in-person abuse and physical violence.
LGBT+ advocates have warned that targeted legislation, and the volatile rhetoric promoting it, endangers already-vulnerable LGBT+ families and their children, as well as students, teachers and school staff, and transgender Americans seeking care.
After the attack, Mr Pierce said their son asked, “What if this happens ever again in my life?”
“And I said, ‘Well, it probably will, little man, and we just have to get stronger, and we can’t just listen to the people who are afraid of our family,’” Mr Pierce remembers saying. “‘Our family is normal and happy and some people are not happy and they don’t know how to control our feelings, so they do mean things to other people, and that is not our fault.’”
Mr Pierce shared what happened on the train in a Twitter thread that has been shared thousands of times, closing with a request to help protect families like theirs, “outnumbered and tired”.
“What we need is people to stand up for us when we’re not there,” he tells The Independent.
“We need people to never allow that kind of rhetoric to spread, and to always point out how absurd and harmful lt is,” he says, adding that the hateful messages – whether coming from online “trolls” or elected officials – must not be allowed to fester unchecked.
“We just have to … expose it for how foul and toxic it is, and don’t let it spread,” he says. “That’s what’s going to lead to tragedy, if that rhetoric is allowed to spread.”
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