It was supposed to be a fun family train ride up the California coast, a spring break getaway for Robbie Pierce, his husband, and their two young children. They'd been enjoying watching the coastline speed by through their window until, Pierce said, the family was accosted by a man who accused the couple of stealing their children and called them "pedophiles."
"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 Tuesday night as the Amtrak train made a stop in Diridon Station in San Jose, California, Pierce said. The verbal attack immediately caused both of his children, ages 5 and 6, to burst into tears while the unidentified man continued to shout attacks at the couple. Pierce detailed much of the encounter on a Twitter thread that night, along with his concerns about the spread of hateful rhetoric. The tweets have garnered thousands of likes and retweets.
Pierce said he hadn't seen the man until he approached the family and began yelling.
"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, telling him, "That's not a family! You're rapists and pedophiles. You steal Black and Asian children and you rape them."
No Amtrak employees were in sight, and the rest of the passengers appeared unwilling to get involved, Pierce said. His husband, Neal Broverman, then got up to position himself between them and the man, and Pierce took the children away.
"I said to them, 'You know what, this is a scary place, we're going to move away from this scary man,'" Pierce said.
A spokesperson for Amtrak told BuzzFeed News the conductor reported the incident to its operations team 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.
The family moved four cars away while police arrived and the man was told to get off the train, Pierce said.
Another passenger, Jennifer Parker, told BuzzFeed News the man continued to threaten passengers when Pierce and his family moved away, and he refused orders to get off the train.
"If they kill me I'm ready to die!" she said the man yelled out.
"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."
It wasn't until Pierce and his family got away from the man that their 6-year-old son told them he'd been approached in the bathroom by the man hours earlier, and that the man tried to tell the boy he'd been "stolen" by his adopted parents.
It had been a point of pride for the 6-year-old to go to the restroom on his own, and with it just downstairs from their seats, Pierce and his husband thought it would be fine. But after that first solo trip, he'd started asking for someone to go with him. After learning about what the man had told him, Pierce said he suddenly understood.
"I asked him, 'Is that why you were scared to go to the bathroom again?' and he just cried and hugged me," he said.
In a brief statement, Amtrak officials on Thursday called the event an "act of hate."
"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 are also considering banning the customer from its trains in the future.
It was not immediately clear if there was an arrest or citation issued by law enforcement because of the incident. Although Santa Clara Sheriff deputies responded to the site, a spokesperson told BuzzFeed News they did so as an assisting agency to Amtrak Police.
Amtrak officials did not immediately answer questions about an arrest or citation.
Pierce said that Tuesday's encounter was, unfortunately, not the first time he had heard anti-gay slurs, verbal attacks, or accusations that his children aren't his. Some of the incidents have seemed to be sparked by the fact that he is Hispanic and his son is Black. Other times, he said, it is clear there are anti-gay beliefs at play.
"If we were of the same race, I don't think some people would jump on it," he said. "Other times, they knew that we have legal custody of them. They just didn't approve of it."
What stood out to Pierce on Tuesday, he said, wasn't just that his family once again faced a verbal attack, but the language of the accusations.
The allegations that he and his husband "stole" their children, that they were "pedophiles" and "rapists," sounded just like the mixture of QAnon conspiracies and right-wing rhetoric that has made baseless claims of vast, government-backed child sex trafficking rings, tried to paint LGBTQ advocates as "groomers," and moved state legislatures to pass anti-LGBTQ laws.
"People have become emboldened over the years," he said. "People used to get in our face, and [now] they're in our children's faces."
In recent months, state legislatures across the country have taken up bills targeting LGBTQ people on matters of healthcare, sports, and education. In Florida, for example, Gov. Ron DeSantis recently signed a bill dubbed the "Don't Say Gay" bill which bans class discussions about sexual orientation or gender identity from kindergarten to the third grade.
In March, five states passed anti-LGBTQ laws.
"He just seemed like he came preloaded with catch phrases from Fox News or DeSantis, or whoever was out there," Pierce said.
Pierce said his children continued to cry for about an hour and asked question after question trying to understand the incident. Was the man coming back? Could he see them? What if someone does it again?
"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 what he couldn't do, he said, was 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."
Deputies ultimately escorted the man out of the train, Pierce said.
For now, the family plans to try to enjoy the rest of their vacation. 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."