Two dads called ‘pedophiles’ on California Amtrak in front of kids

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On Tuesday morning, Robbie Pierce and his family boarded a train in Los Angeles and rode it up the coast of California — their favorite way to travel.

It was the start of spring break for Pierce, a substitute teacher for the Los Angeles Unified School District, and he was excited to spend it in the San Francisco Bay area with his husband and their 6-year-old son and 5-year-old daughter.

Along the 10-hour journey, the kids watched as they zoomed pass the ocean and farmlands, marveling at the sun setting on the Pacific Ocean.

“It was such a peaceful experience,” said Pierce, 41. “Everything was just picturesque.”

But their evening was soon derailed, he said, when his family was accosted by another passenger on the train.

“All of a sudden, there was a man standing right next to me talking to my son,” Pierce said. “The very first thing he said is, ‘Marriage is between a man and a woman.’ ”

Pierce was stunned, he said, as the unidentified man proceeded to shout homophobic attacks, accusing the couple of stealing their children and calling them “pedophiles” and “rapists.” As his kids began to cry, Pierce said he grabbed them and moved them to another car while his husband, Neal Broverman, shouted the harasser away.

The incident occurred on an Amtrak train around 8 p.m. on Tuesday as it made a stop in Diridon Station in San Jose, according to Pierce. Eventually, Amtrak workers arrived and ordered the man to exit the train. When he refused, Pierce said, the workers called the police, who arrived after about 45 minutes and removed the man from the train.

In a statement to The Washington Post, Amtrak condemned the incident as an “act of hate.”

“To ensure our customers feel valued and respected when riding our trains, we are conducting a full investigation on this incident,” the statement said. “This includes potentially banning the customer from future Amtrak ridership.”

Pierce said a conductor asked him and Broverman to fill out a police report, but as of Thursday afternoon, the family had not heard from police or of any charges being brought against the harasser. Amtrak said it contacted the Santa Clara County Sheriff’s Office. In a statement Friday, the sheriff’s office said that deputies responded as an assisting agency but that Amtrak Police were the leading agency on this incident.

Moments after the ordeal, Pierce said he tried to calm his children, who have both faced past traumas in the foster-care system, he said. “They cried for an hour … so I just worked with them … and I talked to each of them differently about it.”

Later that night, Pierce also detailed the incident in a Twitter thread that has amassed more than 150,000 likes and retweets.

“We’ve dealt with this brand of terrifying homophobic stranger before with our son,” Pierce wrote. “But ‘pedophiles’ and ‘rapists’ were new in the mix, at least out loud.”

Pierce said he believes that rhetoric is trickling down from conservatives. As Republicans have introduced a wave of anti-LGBTQ bills across the United States, some have attached specific messaging to justify the legislation — including by suggesting that discussion of LGBTQ topics constitutes “grooming” children for sexual abuse.

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“It was just clear that he had picked up these ideas from somewhere else, and now these things were bleeding over,” Pierce said. “Not just from the news and from social media, but into our real life and into my child’s bubble.”

Tori Cooper, director of community engagement for the Transgender Justice Initiative at the Human Rights Campaign, believes there is a connection between such rhetoric and the rise in killings of transgender people that her organization has been tracking.

“The last few years, we’ve had to endure the most vitriolic and dehumanizing words from elected officials, seen more anti-trans legislature, and sadly profiled a record number of trans and nonbinary deaths due to fatal violence,” she said.

In one attack last week in D.C., a trans woman was harassed while riding on public transit. A viral video she posted to Twitter on Saturday shows a fellow passenger spewing a barrage of transphobic words as he approaches her.

In Vermont, a transgender woman was found stabbed to death along a Morristown road on Tuesday morning. According to the HRC, it is at least the 12th violent killing of a transgender or gender nonconforming person this year.

A number of these attacks happen in public, Cooper said, but many are in private: “Sometimes violence is exacerbated by public perception.”

Amid heightened fears and concerns about public safety nationwide, Pierce said he has been in “crisis management mode,” setting up therapy appointments and trying to help his kids process what happened and why.

“It’s still very present for them,” he said. “They’ve been not sleeping well at night, waking up crying; my son won’t go to the restroom by himself anymore right now.”

What weighs on him, too, is what an attack like this in a solid blue state like California means for LGBTQ families living in Republican-led states, he said: “The fact that this can even come here just makes me even more concerned for people who are in those parts of the country where their rights are being attacked.”

Nationwide, Republicans have filed nearly 200 state bills this year that strip protections for transgender minors or restrict discussion of LGBTQ topics in public schools.

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“I’m privileged to live in Los Angeles and be working in the Los Angeles school district where, at least for the foreseeable future, those laws aren’t going to come here,” Pierce said, adding that other teachers fly Pride flags and talk openly about their same-sex partners.

Pierce said he and Broverman often have conversations with their kids about gender and sexuality when questions arise.

“We treat this issue the same as we treat issues like death and sex. We answer their questions honestly and don’t provide more information than they asked,” he said. “And we believe that when they process that information and have more questions, they’ll come back to us, and that seems to be working pretty well so far.”

In the days since Pierce posted his Twitter thread, he said his family has seen an outpouring of love and support online. “It just helped that feeling of being alone and seeing how many people do care,” he said.

But the thing that has moved him the most is watching his kids persevere.

“Even though they’re wrestling with something very scary that happened to them … they still just have this huge love of adventure and seeing new things,” Pierce said, “and they can’t wait to get back on the train again.”

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