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How Nico Santos and Zeke Smith are redefining LGBTQ love with their relationship

The couple met three years ago and have been “inseparable ever since.”
This LGBTQ Pride Month, TODAY is highlighting the LGBTQ trailblazers in pop culture who paved the way, along with the trendsetters of today who are making a name for themselves.
This LGBTQ Pride Month, TODAY is highlighting the LGBTQ trailblazers in pop culture who paved the way, along with the trendsetters of today who are making a name for themselves.TODAY Illustration / Getty Images
/ Source: TODAY

Actor Nico Santos just wrapped six seasons of “Superstore” in March and according to him, has been on a “much deserved and much needed break.” As the pandemic starts to ease up, he’s hopeful that Pride celebrations will return but if not, he and his partner, writer and comedian Zeke Smith, will still kick it up at home.

“We are just seeing the light at the end of the tunnel,” Santos told TODAY in a joint phone interview with Smith. “And I'm really, really praying that everybody out there gets vaccinated so that we can all, you know, go back to normal and have sort of the Pride bacchanale that we usually have.”

The 42-year-old is keeping a positive tone amid the turbulence of the last 12 months.

“We all need to look out for each other.”

“I understand there's a lot of stuff going on out there,” Santos said. “Everybody is going through, you know, like there's a pandemic going on. Our nation's been having a reckoning with racism. And now this violence towards the AAPI community keeps on persisting and it's a tough time for everybody out there but I think it's nice to be reminded that we're all in this together and we all need to look out for each other and, please, if you see something happening, please step up and help. I mean I think that's what breaks my heart, to see all the AAPI violence. A lot of people have been bystanders and haven't helped.”

Santos met Smith, 33, three years ago when Santos approached Smith at the after-party for the GLAAD Media Awards, held annually by the LGBTQ advocacy group, and as they both agreed, they've been “inseparable ever since.” They’ve also become not just each other’s boyfriends but also each other’s allies.

“We're both gay men and I am trans and Nico is Filipino,” Smith explained to TODAY. “So we have this part of our experience which we really share and then we have these parts of ourselves, which I think we are in this continual journey to fully become allies to one another.

“It's definitely been a process,” Smith continued. “My family has used words that Nico does not appreciate and Nico's friends have said things to me about being trans that I do not appreciate, and it's just become a learning experience. Because we have these disparate parts of ourselves, I think we have a lot of empathy for one another and a desire to be like, ‘OK, when is it my job to step in and correct people for being racist?’ and ‘When is it Nico's job to step in and stop people for being weird about me being trans?’ I think we're just very open with one another and I think the core of it is a desire to fight for one another.”

The two of them are taking an active approach to addressing the wrongs they see in each other’s communities. “Something we're really going to put an emphasis on now is making sure that when there are instances of AAPI ignorance or overt racism or hate, that I can step in and it's not just Nico's job to defend himself and his community,” Smith said. “And vice versa with Nico stepping in, when there are issues of trans ignorance or transphobia, that's not just on me to do the work, that we can share the burden.”

“Pride is about community.”

Their focus on community extends beyond their families and loved ones and to the broader LGBTQ community as well. “For me, Pride is about community,” Smith said. “I grew up in central Oklahoma, where there was not another visible queer person, much less like other queer kids in my high school. And I remember the first Pride parade I saw, I was visiting colleges before my senior year of high school, and we were in New York City, and we just happened to be there at the end of June for the Pride parade, and I remember, instantly going from feeling so lonely to feeling part of something, and that's why I still, I love June, I love Pride Month because I love coming together as a community and sharing our music and our art, and being a family together.”

Santos echoes the familial aspect of Pride. “Before I moved to Los Angeles, I was living in San Francisco. So San Francisco always has a special place for me as far as Pride celebrations are concerned because, you know, in San Francisco, there really is sort of such a focus on community rather than the party.

“I remember we went to San Francisco (one year). My mom met us with my aunties and my cousins, so it was a family affair. And when I say aunties, it's like, you know, my mom's friends, 'cause everybody's just auntie and we were just walking around, me, Zeke and three old Filipino ladies walking around in jockstraps and drag queens and whatnot, and we got to see Kamala Harris speak."

For Santos, Pride also represents a fearless expression of self. “Pride is about living your life unapologetically,” he said. “As queer people, we go through this sort of journey of hating ourselves, there's a lot of self-hate and shame, involved in that journey of sort of discovering who you are and then living your true authentic self, and finally reaching that point when you do come out of the closet. It's a very exhausting, mental, emotional, and sometimes physical journey that queer people go through and so, to be able to truly say that, ‘We're here, we're queer, we're proud,’ you know, that takes a lot. And we’re going to be loud.”

As Pride Month commences, the couple are ready to celebrate each other, their communities and of course, some of their LGBTQ icons. “We have a deep and abiding love for Nathan Lane,” Smith revealed. “Margaret Cho is also high on our mutual list. And I know that they just sort of came onto the scene, but Gottmik is now on the list. (A) queer trans icon.

“I really hope that we can go down to Santa Monica Boulevard (in Los Angeles) and be with people at the bars and, you know, watch drag shows and have celebrations,” said Smith. “But I think at the very least, Nico and I just bought a house, and we have this wonderful backyard, so, I think, at the very minimum, we will have our own Pride party.”

“We're definitely seeing a lot of great trans and nonbinary representation.”

Smith first burst onto the national scene when he was outed by a fellow “Survivor” contestant in 2017. In the four years since that pivotal moment, he hasn’t given up on Hollywood. “I think that the entertainment industry is slowly evolving as far as being more inclusive, both in front of and behind the camera of the LGBTQ community,” Smith observed.

“I think there is also, sort of like, jokes and stereotypes that persisted for so long in film and television, that you can’t get away with anymore, not that they like don't pop up every now and again but I think as far as, like, trans people go, we're definitely seeing a lot of great trans and nonbinary representation that no longer feels so gimmicky, that feels like it's coming from an earnest place.”

Smith offers one example in particular. “I think that LGBTQ characters are allowed to be more than just LGBTQ. We were watching Rutherford Falls, which is a new show on Peacock, that we're both obsessed with, and there's a character who's a nonbinary teenager, and they live life as a nonbinary person, but it's never really mentioned. They're fine, they’re just a nonbinary person who is living their young life.” (Peacock is part of NBC News' parent company, NBCUniversal.)

Santos has seen a similar change as well, especially as a working actor in Hollywood. “I was thinking a character like Mateo (in ‘Superstore’), sort of like the intersectionality of his identity, probably wouldn't be able to exist in the show, you know, 5, 10 years ago. I'm sure that if somebody had pitched, ‘Oh this character is gay and he's Asian and he's undocumented,’ we can't have that. We already have a gay guy or we already have an Asian guy. He can't be both. And I think now actually, not just with Mateo and ‘Superstore,’ but with a lot of queer characters that are out there today, I think, creators, artists and audiences are definitely a lot more educated and more intelligent now."

As Santos sees it, LGBTQ characters are more human now. “We are just sort of allowed to live our lives as all the straight characters are. Nobody questions the straight characters and why they do what they're doing. But when it’s the queer character before, people are like, well they do that, but now, you know, we're just part of the mix, which is great.

“You never would have seen that before,” he added. “And it's just something we need to see more of.”

But at the same time, Smith acknowledges the positive portrayals of LGBTQ characters only go so far. “I think that that has had a major effect in the way that Americans view trans people in particular, but I think the other side of that coin is that, with increased visibility on screen, but not in local communities, that it's created this complex situation where I think many Americans in rural areas or in red states, think of trans people as only on television, and not in their communities, and therefore trans people are sort of an invention of the liberal media.

“And I think that is what has led to this backlash that we're seeing in a lot of state legislators, where we have these terrible bills trying to either ban trans kids from playing sports or banning trans health care altogether,” Smith added. “So, while increased trans representation has led to a lot of great things, it’s also led to this backlash that we need to be very vigilant and combat it.”

“There's a whole community who loves you.”

As the fight for LGBTQ rights and advocacy evolves and soldiers on, Santos and Smith encourage young people to keep the faith. “For young queer kids out there, especially people who maybe don't live in a big city, who don't have as much resources as some of the youth who live in small towns, hang in there, there's so much more avenues for you, to be able to find your support system,” Santos said.

Look online for people in your immediate community that you feel safe in approaching, (who can be your) support system. But this also takes patience, and it's not a race. You know, if you're thinking about coming out, make sure that you feel safe and supported. And again, if there's somebody in your immediate community that can help you with that, there are millions of people inside your computer, who are willing to help you because there's a whole community who loves you.”

Smith added, “Find something you're passionate about, set big goals, you know, dedicate yourself to achieving those goals. And when you get to a certain age, and when you can get out of dodge, there are so many of us, queer adults, who are ready to embrace you and love you and welcome you into this wonderful community that we are all a part of.”

After all, Santos points to Smith and himself as an example. “Listen, if this little kid from the Philippines and this little kid from Oklahoma are now out here living their best damn lives, it can happen for you too.”

This LGBTQ Pride Month 2021, TODAY is highlighting the LGBTQ trailblazers in pop culture who paved the way, along with the trendsetters of today who are making a name for themselves. By examining their experiences individually, we see how all of their stories are tied to one another in a timeline of queer history that takes us from where we were to where we stand today.