My Jakarta: Rio Damar, Founder of Melela.org

By : Finnegan Pan | on 10:20 AM February 23, 2014
Category : Life & Style, My Jakarta

RD 2 by Christina Phan Rio Damar established the site Melela.org to help people, especially LGBTQ people, to gracefully reveal their true selves. (Photo courtesy of Christina Phan)

“I was pursuing my career as a journalist when I discovered so many values about journalism that fascinated me, mainly transparency, balance and objectivity,” says Rio Damar, founder of melela.org. Rio envisioned a website that would provide a platform where LGBT or non-LGBT people could share stories to ultimately spread understanding of sexual minorities in Indonesia.

What’s behind the name Melela?

It comes from Pramoedya Ananta Toer in his 1951 novel “Bukan Pasar Malam” [“It’s Not an All-Night Fair”], and means, “gracefully revealing one’s true self.”

What can readers expect to find and learn from the stories on Melela.org?

Melela.org lays out evidence of how Indonesians can form an open-minded society and promote inclusivity among them. I think the website epitomizes our national motto Bhinneka Tunggal Ika [Unity in Diversity] and instills that beautiful philosophy into a personal level.

To many, coming out may be burdened with hopelessness and guilt. This is dangerous, because we become what we believe. Whatever follows “I’m” is going to come looking for you. So if you’re saying “I’m less, I’m not worthy, I’m wrong,” that means the words will haunt your life. People have ideas about themselves that have been formed by other people’s definition of what is “right” for them.

On Melela.org we present people who believe that fulfillment, peace, joy and love are part of your birthright. Those people advocate for “I’m worthy, I’m beautiful, and I’m good enough.”

The website amplifies the voice of being honest with yourself as well as with the others. In some cases that means accepting weakness and self-limitation, the courage it takes to be yourself — and these elements resonate not only with LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender] people.

As there is still a lot of discrimination in Indonesia toward sexual minorities, what challenges lie ahead?

As a gay person, it is important for me to remember that I came from a community whose stories have for too long been forgotten or ignored. A community whose life has been ridiculed or misrepresented. But despite all of that, we are also the community that has found love, and understood how to laugh, and to care for one another.

How do you think Melela.org can propel discussion of LGBT issues in Indonesia?

Social change is more durable when it isn’t imposed from the top. We will only attain freedom if grass-roots people show appreciation of what is different and muster the courage to discover what is fundamentally the same. Part of celebrating solidarity in diversity is not clinging to the comfort of what seems familiar.

And talking about changing the climate of hostility against sexual minorities?

I don’t see Indonesia today still displaying the same amount of hostility if we compare it to, say, 10 years ago. We are more relaxed and smart now. If Indonesia was still in the same state, Melela.org would never have been established. The people that helped me build Melela.org were non-LGBT people. They are common people who are married and have kids. Isn’t that beautiful?

Of course, there were one or two Twitter accounts that have consistently sent their “prayers” hoping the wrath of God smites me. But at the same time, the amount of support is way larger. Sometimes now when I mention my identity on Twitter, I would most of the time gain new followers and some of them are women who wear the hijab. I ask you again: isn’t that beautiful?

You have inspired many Indonesians; who is your source of inspiration?

Most of my inspiration is from regular people with diverse backgrounds who have decided to make a difference. I have met leaders with no power and position in the traditional sense who have chosen to make a difference, and that inspires me a lot. Leadership, in particular, is about making a positive difference, and that always keeps me inspired.

Are there any organizing activities being planned now to reinforce the message that Melela.org is conveying?

With more than 4,000 visitors in three hours, it’s imperative to organize an activation activity. We are open for collaboration from companies or any other institutions. Companies or agencies can send their ideas to contact@melela.org. Currently we are considering engaging with non-LGBT communities as well.

Final statement on coming out?

Being gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgendered is not a choice. It’s something we were born with. Just like a person who was born Javanese or Minang. Coming out can be really hard or really difficult. There is no guidebook to help you determine the best way or time to tell your loved ones that you are different.

Rio Damar was talking to Finnegan Pan

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