Nikole Cababa comes from a strong line of fierce women, but finding her own strength came with overcoming the challenges of identity and culture.
Cababa came to the realization that she was bisexual at a young age, though she didn’t necessarily have the language for it. She attended small Catholic school that was very conservative and homophobic. So, she didn’t come out as bisexual until her early college years.
“The process was very challenging, particularly being bi, there was always this, ‘OK, is it a phase?’ ‘Is this something that I’ll get over?’” described Cababa, now 28.
The toughest journey was to come out to her family.
“For a long time I thought it was much easier to just stay in the closet and just have separate, compartmentalized lives,” she remembered. “Internally, I felt such a strong tug of war with myself.”
It took until she was about 22 to tell them.
“And, at the time, I used the word ‘gay’ because I didn’t think that my family understood what bisexual was,” said Cababa, whose parents are from the Philippines.
In the Filipino community there are two references for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer people. One is ‘tomboy’ for women and the other was ‘baklâ’ for men.
“The in between was nothing that I was exposed to,” she explained.
At the time Cababa was living with her mother, who kicked her out. Fortunately, she had other family members, such as her grandmother, aunt, cousins, who were more accepting.
“It’s been a while now, and she’s slowly coming around,” Cababa said. “It’s still a challenge and a journey…. The coming out and finally coming out to my family was one of the most challenging but liberating experiences I’ve ever had.”
Meeting new friends, establishing long-term relationships and discovering the world of activism helped her find her voice.
Cababa was one the first one in family to attend a public university and there was a lot pressure in her first years. When she started getting involved with student activism at UCLA, working on immigrant rights and affordable education, she started feeling empowered.
“Those were the seeds of my activism,” she said. “So, by the time I came back to Long Beach, I knew I really wanted to be a part of something that I was never a part of growing up.”
She began getting involved as a volunteer with Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy and other grassroots organizations. At LAANE she helped advance the living-wage campaign for more than four years, working to improve the lives of hotel workers.
“My passion started driving me towards economic justice,” she said. “If you look at the economy, that is the root of a lot of pain for a lot of people who can’t pay for rent, who can’t pay for groceries, who can’t pay for health care. A lot of it revolves around the kind of work that families are forced to rely on.”
These days the Long Beach resident works for the Filipino Migrant Center, which serves low-income, working-class Filipinos throughout Southern California. There, she helps organize people who have recently migrated or are facing challenges at work, at home or in their neighborhoods to develop their leadership skills.
Through her work with those groups she had the opportunity to do coalition building work with lgbtq communities, communities of faith and other grassroots organizations.
“It’s been so life-changing to be a part of this work, on a volunteer level, and on a full time level,” Cababa, 28, said. “It’s actually a great privilege to do this kind of work.”
Soon she realized that her intersecting identities, among them being a woman of Filipino descent and being bisexual, also intersected with her community activism.
“One thing that I learned about all these different identities and the work that I do, particularly identifying as bi and identifying as bi and having to come out is that the closets that we face as lgbtq … people can be so lonely,” she said.
When she was meeting caregivers working alone, some of them undocumented, she related a lot of the similar feelings she felt growing up because they also couldn’t speak up for themselves or let the truth come out because they feared what could happen to them or their families.
“While they weren’t telling me about their sexuality, they were telling me about something so personal; they were coming from a very lonely and vulnerable place,” she remembered. “I really started seeing those connections. We all have closets to bear but it’s when we reach that breaking point, when we finally feel the courage to speak up for ourselves, to speak up for our community, to speak up against injustice, whether you are a housekeeper, a caregiver, a domestic violence survivor or an lgbtq person…. I felt more empowered when I started organizing … alongside people who have taken great risk in their lives.”
“We need to have that courage … so that when we overcome these individual experiences, we recognize we have a collective experience.”
For example, she remembers how the same group of hotel workers who, at one point made fun of their fellow lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender coworkers, grew to understand and accept them and actually marched with them at pride parades.
“They felt more empowered coming out to their coworkers because they were fighting for the same thing; they were fighting for respect,” she said. “It’s a powerful experience when I meet workers who remind me of my grandmother, my mom … my family. They remind me of the change that is possible.”