Gili Roman should be with his friends this week at the first international swim camp held by The Nemos, the LGBTQ-inclusive club based in Tel Aviv that he helps to run.
“I was hoping to enjoy this experience and also to host one of the swimmers that was supposed to travel here from abroad. We were all very excited,” he tells Outsports.
Instead, it is Roman who is traveling — from Israel to Berlin, Washington D.C., New York City, and back to Germany — speaking to politicians and media outlets, and attending public rallies such as that held at the NYC Marathon last Sunday.
His mission now is to win the freedom of his sister and the other hostages seized by Hamas a month ago. Throughout, he wears a black baseball cap bearing the slogan ‘Bring Yarden Home Now’.
On Oct. 7, Yarden Roman-Gat — the mother of a 3-year-old daughter — was among more than 200 people who were kidnapped by militants. It is believed they were taken into Gaza.
She went missing in the aftermath of the Be’eri massacre, one of a series of terror attacks that initiated the full-scale conflict. More than 1,400 Israelis have been killed, and amid the ongoing military response and developing humanitarian crisis, the Gaza Health Ministry reports that at least 10,000 Palestinians have died so far.
As the war continues, the plight of the hostages — more than half of whom have foreign nationality, according to the Israeli government — is a focal point for action.
A volunteer-led “Bring Them Home Now” campaign, set up by the rapidly convened Hostage and Missing Families Forum, is demanding that all innocent civilians be released. Their profiles are featured on the Forum’s website and social media channels.
Roman has become a leading figure in the movement, and The Nemos are playing a supporting role. The club has around 40 members and celebrates its 8th birthday this month; it is well-established and respected in the international gay sports community.
Only a few months ago, a Nemos group including Roman attended the annual International Gay and Lesbian Aquatics (IGLA) Championships, the global get-together of inclusive clubs.
More than 1,000 swimmers and divers were at that event in London, the biggest of its kind since the pandemic. Old friendships were rekindled, and new connections made.
Following Oct. 7, you would expect a few clubs to have reached out to The Nemos, and for at least one or two LGBTQ sports organizations to have expressed solidarity.
That hasn’t happened, however. In recent weeks, the swimmers in Tel Aviv have increasingly felt like outliers.
Roman is ready to give those other clubs the benefit of the doubt — “I don’t know if they’re completely aware of the situation” — but having made many social media contacts during his five years with The Nemos, he is conscious of the silence.
“I’ll divide it between our LGBTQ community and the LGBTQ sports community,” he says.
“We are getting a lot of help from LGBTQ organizations around the world, such as opportunities to speak on international media platforms.
“But I have only heard from maybe two swimmers outside of Israel, which is disheartening, I must say. Honestly, I don’t know if it’s apathy, or a lack of knowledge or something else.
“In general though, people understand the humane attribution to our cause, which is to bring my sister and the other hostages home. The rest of it, I don’t have a lot of time to think about.”
The horror of Oct. 7
When air raid sirens sounded early on that Saturday morning, Elad Klein — also part of the Nemos management team — had no reason at first to believe anything extraordinary was happening.
“Once in a while, Hamas fires on Tel Aviv. Sadly, this is the routine we live in,” he says. “But it escalated quickly and we started to understand the scope of it. This was not just missiles but also massacres, in the south.
“We had a swim session planned for the Sunday and usually when there are missiles, we don’t cancel anything because we have a shelter next to the pool. If we hear the siren, we get out of the water and go straight to the shelter.
“Of course, when we realized what happened, we canceled the session. Even if we were safe there, nobody was in the mood to swim. We were all in shock.”
Klein was relieved to learn his own family was safe. Messages pinged frequently in the Nemos’ group chat as members checked in. “I don’t know anybody who hasn’t been personally affected,” he says. “I have two friends who found out they have lost family members.
“Then after a couple of days, we realized that Gili’s sister had been kidnapped to Gaza.”
Roman, who lives and works in Tel Aviv as an educator, had lost contact with Yarden in Be’eri mid-morning on that Saturday.
The next day, he took a call from Yarden’s husband, Alon, who described the horror that had unfolded at the kibbutz. Around 130 residents were murdered by the heavily armed militants, who also destroyed property before removing hostages. Alon’s elderly mother, Kinneret, was later found among the dead.
The militants bundled the Roman-Gats into a jeep and put a neighbor in the trunk. They drove towards the border with Gaza, but the sight of Israeli tanks forced them to slow their vehicle. At that point, the Roman-Gats jumped out and ran. Yarden handed her daughter Geffen to Alon, with the sound of gunfire around them.
When he turned around, he saw his wife attempting to protect herself behind a tree. He found a hiding place for himself and Geffen, and was eventually rescued by IDF soldiers. But there was no sign of Yarden.
“Gili drove south from Tel Aviv to where she disappeared, to try to understand what happened,” explains Klein. “He had to look to see if there was blood.” Although a search of the scene showed no evidence of harm, the investigators determined that she had been kidnapped. Alon’s sister, Carmel, is also understood to have been abducted.
“Those first two weeks were very stressful for Gili,” says Klein. “We also had another group member post to say that his cousin had been killed.
“We were there for them both. It was tough for us all.”
Aiding and adapting
When Roman speaks to Outsports, he is in a cab in New York, on his way to another interview to raise awareness about the hostages and keep their awful predicament in people’s minds.
He has greatly valued The Nemos during the last few weeks. “It’s been heartwarming to have their empathy and support,” he says. “Different people have helped in different ways.
“One friend has come with me to the U.S. to help me through this part of the journey. When I went to Germany with the groups of Israeli-German citizens, I had another good friend from Nemos there with me, helping us with all the logistics. He’s going to come again when we go back to Germany.”
Roman mentions the connections provided by Sagi Krispin, who is also chair of LGBT Sports Club Israel, the umbrella group that represents 13 different teams and 360 athletes across the country. Many of these athletes have received army call-ups, as noted in the group’s recent social media posts. Klein regularly messages the three Nemos members who are in the military reserve.
A fortnight after the Oct. 7 attacks, The Nemos started up some in-person social activity again.
“Until then, nobody left their houses,” says Klein. “We were afraid because some people were saying that the terrorists would come to Tel Aviv.
“But then the atmosphere and the feeling of safety improved a little. So we invited everyone and said if you want to speak, to talk, to hug, to show some affection, we are here for you.
“Even then, in the beginning, very few people came. Over time, they have realized they want to be with their friends again but it’s hard because almost every day there are rockets falling on us.”
The blue sky and sunshine outside Klein’s window give a misleading illusion of tranquillity. “It’s still really nice here in November, good weather for a drink outside.
“But when the sirens go off, you have to look quickly for the nearest shelter. I understand how for many people, that’s too uncomfortable or they can’t enjoy a beer knowing that their friends are fighting in Gaza and risking their lives.”
It’s a delicate balancing act — the grim reality of war against the need for some normality. The Nemos are trying to navigate a way through.
“We have started to train again, just once or two times a week, and we go for a drink after that. But I really understand when people are too afraid, and choose not to come.”
In the outside lane
At the IGLA Championships in late June, The Nemos joined hundreds of competitors from around the world in an event geared towards fun and inclusion.
The timing meant many athletes were also able to march, sing and dance in the Pride in London parade through the city’s streets on July 1.
“It was such an uplifting experience,” recalls Roman. “I was so relaxed and happy back then. But it seems very distant from now.”
Previously, The Nemos have sent swimmers to the Gay Games and to EuroGames, collecting medals and making friends along the way. Both Klein and Roman tell Outsports that when they travel abroad, they often look up the local LGBTQ clubs in the cities they visit and renew acquaintances while enjoying a session.
Since Oct. 7, a handful of people from overseas have expressed concern and sent comforting thoughts, along with those who signed up for the swim camp, which had to be shelved.
“We had individuals from groups in Berlin, Rome, Barcelona and Switzerland all due to come,” says Klein.
“I have to say, those people were all very sweet. Every day until we said we had to cancel it, they would encourage us by sending warm words. The solidarity was very important for us to see.”
As a club, however, The Nemos are finding themselves somewhat isolated. Though the war is dominating headlines everywhere, there is a noticeable absence of messages from fellow LGBTQ sports groups.
It’s confusing and frustrating, admits Klein. “I think we’d just want those groups to show that they care for The Nemos, for us. They don’t need to show support for Israel.
“I’ve lived for almost 10 years in Europe so I have many international friends, and a lot of them are pro-Palestine. They all called me to make sure I was OK.
“Maybe you can explain it by saying that yes, these groups do care for us but they just feel uncomfortable. Maybe they think we’re too busy, or too miserable, and they don’t want to come towards us.
“But I have asked myself the question that if something like this attack happened in Paris or Rome, would I contact the other swim clubs there? I want to believe that yes, I would.”
The search for a solution
So far, only five of the hostages held by Hamas have been released or rescued. As negotiations continue, there have been indications that some foreign nationals could be freed soon but every passing day brings more heartache for Roman and the other families.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says there can be no general ceasefire in Gaza until the hostages are released. Hamas says that as long as Gaza is under assault from Israeli forces, the fighting will continue and the hostages will not be let go.
Julianna Margulies met today with Gili and Maya Roman, Yarden’s brother and cousin.— BringYardenHome (@Bringyardenhome) November 6, 2023
She promised to continue giving all our loved ones kidnapped in Gaza a voice.
Yarden loved ‘The good wife’ and Julianna in particular.
Thank you!#juliannamargulies#bringthemhome pic.twitter.com/4Mc5HvGkIC
For now, as he waits for the impasse to be broken somehow, Roman is seeking help on two levels.
“On one, it’s a human-to-human, personal level,” he says. “It’s about realizing how everybody in Israel knows someone close to them who has been harshly affected.
“Maybe they have had a family member killed in the attacks, or they have had someone taken hostage, or they are serving in the military, trying to keep others safe. Just be there for them.
“On the other level — and if you feel you can advocate higher — I would say that this is not just an Israeli issue, but a global one.
“Many people think that this attack was related to the Palestinian cause but this isn’t how I perceive it. I feel that this was a radical Islamist attack which is relevant to all of us, including to the gay community. We need to be there for each other.
“I know it’s complicated for people to support that view while they are also empathizing with the other side. But I don’t think it’s contradictory, certainly not with regard to the hostage issues.
“This is a very basic human cause. Supporting or advocating for that in any way possible is something that can help.”
Back in Tel Aviv, Klein expresses the deepest sadness for all the lives lost in the war. Many of his fellow employees at the Israeli firm he works for are based in different locations around the world. He appreciates their continuing support and sensitivity.
Away from the office, the Nemos family is there for him too. He says joining the club was the best decision he made since returning to live in Israel three years ago.
“The only reason I went there was to meet new friends — that’s why most people join, to increase their social circles,” he says.
“Then I joined the management team because I know how important that was to me in the first year. I want to give back to our community.”
The club has already created a second team set-up in Haifa, and there are plans afoot for one in Jerusalem. Now more than ever, Klein appreciates the bond that The Nemos offer through sport.
He looks forward to the day when they can all be together again. “We really hope that the war will be over soon — but I don’t think it will be.”
Update: After being contacted by Outsports in relation to this article, the Federation of Gay Games responded with the following statement: “Our deepest sympathies go out to any country, Gay Games member organization or LGBTQ+ sports group that is impacted by a terrorist attack. We hope for a rapid resolution to the situation in the Middle East, and hope for safety for all members of the LGBTQ+ community around the world.”
For more information on how to show support, visit the Bring Them Home Now website.