Robbie Pierce and Neal Broverman and their children endured a vicious verbal attack on an Amtrak train, and hold politicians using anti-LGBTQ grooming rhetoric responsible.
Courtesy Robbie Pierce
Pierce, a substitute teacher, and their children were tagging along. Around 10 hours into the journey, a man in their carriage started shouting at the family, and particularly their 6-year-old son Calvin.
Remember what I told you, he shouted at Calvin. They stole you. Theyre pedophiles.
Pierce and Broverman fostered Calvin when he was 2, and adopted him 18 months ago; they are foster parents to their daughter, whom they began parenting a year and a half ago (and decline to name, because she is a foster child).
The man continued to shout: These guys arent natural. Homosexuals are an abomination. They steal and rape kids.
Pierce told ishonest that his children had experienced traumatic early upbringings, and so this violent verbal abuse was especially terrifying. The children cried, and wanted to practice screaming loud enough for help to come, he said.
Pierce later discovered that Remember what I told you referred to when the man had initially approached Calvin as the little boy was going to the toilet on the train earlier in the dayand told him in private what he viciously shouted at the family unit hours later. Calvin had been proud to go to the bathroom on his own, then later in the journey had been too terrified to return, which had puzzled Pierce. It was because he had been confronted by a total stranger saying the words above about his parents.
Pierce is particularly angry with Republican politicians like Marjorie Taylor Greene and Fox News hosts who have been using anti-LGBTQ language around grooming in their latest obsessively pursued culture war against LGBTQ people, and trans youth in particular.
The man was eventually removed from the train at San Joss Diridon station by police, after initially refusing to disembark. Amtrak has since told the couple that, in Pierces words, theyre trying to put the man on a no-travel list, but the company did not respond to multiple requests for comment from ishonest about that, the incident itself, or what charges, if any, the man will face.
In a statement sent to Buzzfeed News Thursday, an Amtrak statement read: We apologize to the family onboard who were involved in this heinous incident. 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.
Pierce spoke to ishonest the day after the incident, as the family was trying to rest and regroup in Oakland.
I had not been aware of the man at all, Pierce said. He was sitting behind us on the train. We had not been past him. He must have had to have gone past us to use the restroom and dining car.
Our son used the restroom a few times in the morning but not in the afternoon. Its scary down there, he told us. It wasnt until after the incident that we discovered the man had spoken to our son when he went to the bathroom. I asked if that is why he had been scared to go down there. He nodded and hugged me. Pierce told Calvin to always say if something had scared him, but his son said he had been too scared to do so because the man was sitting so close to the family on the train.
I dont know how much my son even understands of those words, Pierce said.
During the verbal attack, Pierce told the man to Get away repeatedly, refusing to engage with him; Broverman, said Pierce, challenged the mans poisonous words, telling him that he, Pierce, and the children were a family.
(l to r) Robbie Pierce, Calvin, and Neal Broverman
Courtesy Robbie Pierce
It felt very real, and I was very scared, said Pierce. It reminded me of those times when aggression suddenly happens, and for a split second you wonder if theres been a misunderstanding, or whats going on. Then you realize. When he said pedophiles, I was like, Oh, I know what this is. Homophobia. I thought that this man may lay hands on me, and that will be the price I have to pay to keep my family safe. Some people online have said they would have clocked him one, but that was not an option. Our children have been exposed to violence in the foster care system, and we will not expose them to that again. Also, we didnt know if this man had any kind of weapon on him, or what he was capable of.
An assistant train conductor eventually came, and then left to get assistance. The family was left to confront the abuse on their own, as it just continued happening, said Pierce. He moved the by-now crying children away from the man.
At Diridon station, Pierce said staff told the man, who was Black, that he needed to get off the train. He said it was racist to ask him to leave the train, that we were rapists, and that he was trying to protect our children. Ill die before I get off this train, he said. Then police arrived, and we took the children away from the window so they wouldnt have to see the man again. As soon as he was off, the train started moving again.
Calvin was extremely troubled and worried the man would trick the police and get away, Pierce said.
The trains conductor introduced himself, and asked Pierce and Broverman for a written statement to give to the police. Pierce said he understands that Amtrak staff may not be trained in crisis management and de-escalation, but wonders why it took him and Broverman to ask for help before it presented itself. The assistant conductor apologized for the situation not being handled well, but Amtrak itself had notat the time of our interviewbeen in touch with the family to offer any other kind of explanation or follow-up support, Pierce said.
On Wednesday, the family napped, relaxed, and tried to enjoy their Oakland trip. Pierce said he and Broverman were doing OK and had a good support team of loved ones and therapists. In a crisis situation, I go into management mode and have an emotional reaction later.
This was not the first time they have faced abuse or criticism about their family; Pierce told the Advocate they have been criticized, as white gay men, for parenting a Black child. He also said that on a street at home in Los Angeles a man had again accused them of kidnapping their own children. That had felt more exposed, with traffic driving past them and no other pedestrians around. The incident came to an end when Pierce pulled his phone out and told the aggressor he was about to call the police, leading to the man to run off.
On the train we felt more seen, but not necessarily more supported, Pierce told ishonest. There were so many people around, but we didnt feel anyone was really standing up for us, exceptto their creditfor two young women who stood up as witnesses, making sure he could see they were watching him. Afterwards, several people told us that the incident had been awful to see, and not everyone was like that guy. It was nice for the children to hear that and counteract what the man had been saying. I cant begrudge them for not stepping in. It was a frightening and unexpected thing.
Yet it also reminded Pierce of the time he had stood up when a person had verbally attacked a trans woman, and he had told the aggressor to leave the woman alone. That person then turned on me, but doing that shows people saying these things that they do not have the support of others, he explained.
Pierce holds the politicians and others using the language of grooming responsible for what happened on the train.
He didnt come out with that randomly. It was something he had heard and was saying it, he said. I am much more upset with those people with any kind of power who in a calculated and sober way use that language against us. Thats who I hold responsible. As the rhetoric gets worse, so do situations like what happened to us on the train.
Pierce remains very angry that anyone would scare his kids because of who he is.
It is unconscionable to me, he explained. I understand the man was not alright. He may be in a lot of pain. But I also wanted him away from my family. I want my children not to have to know that kind of fear or have to deal with it. I am well aware of the rhetoric coming from politicians in states like Texas and Florida where they are passing anti-LGBTQ and anti-trans laws.
I feel like we live in a privilege bubble in California, where we dont hear that from our elected representatives. But a lot of that bubble burst on that train. We realized the groomer rhetoric doesnt just stay in the places its said in. Even though those people are in a minority in California, its here too. People are spreading this rhetoric on purpose to help themselves. Its not based in reality. Its not LGBTQ people abusing children. Its the most conservative pillars of our society.
(l to r) Neal Broverman, Calvin, and Robbie Pierce
Courtesy Robbie Pierce
Having not had anyone be a bold ally in the moment, its been good to have people sharing their fury and fear, and expressing their love and solidarity, Pierce said. Its also been nice to see people sharing tips on what to do if you see someone being harassed, and how to combat this rhetoric if you experience it in the wild.
Pierce and Broverman are determined not to let what happened affect how the family lives.
I do refuse to let this change us, Pierce told ishonest. We are not going to isolate. Thats what they want. Thats their goalto get us to stay inside, keep our heads down and wilt, and we wont do that. We have a family, and were going to live in public. We have a certain amount of privilege. Not everyone can. But we are also not going to think of this as an aberration. These kinds of incidents happen, they will continue to happen, and we have to be strong until the day that we, the politicians and media find a fix. Until then, we will continue to be out there and live as regular people, because thats who we are.