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Meredith Baxter's New Family Ties: Coming Out as a Lesbian

Meredith Baxter's New Family Ties: Coming Out as a Lesbian

Earlier this week actress Meredith Baxter made big waves when she came out as lesbian on several news outlets, including with this exclusive interview that first appeared on SheWired's sibling site Advocate.com. The fave sitcom mom from Family Ties spoke openly about being on a ship with thousands of lesbians on the Sweet Carribean Cruise, coming out to her family and colleagues and about her partner Nancy Locke.

TracyEGilchrist

Since her TV career heyday in the 1970s and ’80s as a darling of the popular prime-time series Family and Family Ties, Meredith Baxter has mainly flown under the radar, with the exception of a few acclaimed turns in made-for-TV movies such as My Breast and A Woman Scorned: The Betty Broderick Story. That is until she boarded the Sweet Caribbean Cruise with thousands of other lesbians last month. If the woman who famously played Elyse Keaton, liberal mother to Michael J. Fox’s conservative Alex on the long-running sitcom Family Ties, thought she would go unnoticed amid generations of gay women who idolized her for her blond-haired, blue-eyed, all-American good looks, she was wrong.

When the 62-year-old actress realized that she and her partner of four years, Nancy Locke, a 54-year-old contractor, were making a splash on the lesbian cruise, Baxter decided to take control of the story she knew would follow when she came back to shore — and come out publicly. True to form for Baxter, who has been sober for 19 years and has spoken at engagements across the country about her battle with alcoholism, the Emmy Award-nominated actress wanted to make sure there were no skeletons in her closet.

The cruise, which Baxter was on primarily in order to shoot a guest stint on the lesbian-themed Web series We Have to Stop Now, wasn’t the first lesbian event she’s attended since coming out to herself and her family seven years ago. Last April the three-times-married mother of five went virtually unnoticed when she attended the Dinah, the annual four-day lesbian extravaganza in Palm Springs, Calif.

In her first interview with the gay press, which she says can be called nothing other than a “coming-out” interview, Baxter discusses the attention she received from women on the cruise, the impact sobriety may have had on her coming-out, and the cakewalk of telling family and friends she’s gay.

The Advocate: Let’s get right to it. What has brought you to this point, where you’re coming out publicly?
Meredith Baxter: Well, to be honest, it was time. And promoted probably from the attention brought from having been on the cruise, I knew that something was coming from that. So I thought, Let me just beat them to it and tell it in my words instead of someone’s made-up words.

You were also at the Dinah last April, correct? Nothing seemed to come of that. Have you been hiding in plain sight this whole time?
Yes, I have. You know, I did reach a point where I thought, Am I invisible? But it was fine because we had friends at the Dinah who kind of paved the way for us and let us slide in. And my goal was to stay under the radar. I wasn’t prepared for anything at the time. And also, I know that I was flirting with the possibility, which was OK, ’cause it wasn’t going to last forever, and I didn’t really want it to. I’m a slow learner. It just took me a while.

 
When did you realize you were gay?
Thirteen years ago I had a short-term affair with somebody — a woman — who I just cared for tremendously as a person, [I] was not really attracted to her, but the best way to describe it, [a romance] seemed like the next natural step in our relationship just because I cared about her a lot. Not once — it’s probably hard to imagine — but not once did it occur to me that I was a lesbian. Not once. I just thought, OK, I don’t think so, and went off and got married again for a short period of time. And a couple years after that, I entered my next foray into being with a woman, and the penny dropped at that point.

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And was that a revelation or just a slow aha! moment?
No, it was pretty much a revelation. The analogy I’ve used is a story [from] when I was a kid. I never could see very well and I said something to my parents and it kind of went unnoticed, or no one really responded to it. I guess I didn’t make enough noise. When I was 12 I tried on a [friend’s] pair of glasses and I was stunned with how clearly I could see. In truth, I used to think trees looked like lollipops because there was a solid stake and this solid ball. I didn’t know most people could see leaves. Oh, this is how the world is perceived? That’s kind of what having that second relationship made me realize — that this is where I want to be because I was dead to the world in many other ways. I’ve been married three times, and I have a slew of children, but I’ve never felt that kind of connection before in that kind of awakening. It was very profound for me.

How was the process of coming out to your grown children?
Oh, a piece of cake. They were cool. All the kids were basically grown — the youngest [twins] were 17 at the time — and everyone was great. They basically just said, “We just want you to be happy.” So I really could not have asked for a better process than that.

In your personal life with the people you’ve told, has it been a cakewalk?
Maybe a cakewalk on their side. It was absolute fucking agony for me, only in the respect that I was so fearful.

Fearful of what?
Fearful of reaction, of judgment, of whatever I was sure was going to come. One of my greatest concerns was [for] a little skin care company [Meredith Baxter Simple Works] that I’ve been involved in for 11 years, and [my partners there] are just wonderful people. They’ve been so darling and worked so carefully and honestly with me, and I never said anything to them. I wrote them a letter and got a response that made me just ... I could have sung, I was so happy. They were so lovely.

So much of this is very new, within the say past week or two?
I’ve basically lived an out life among my family and friends for all this time, but in work situations I just never brought it up. It didn’t seem to matter, but I didn’t want anyone blindsided — by getting some information and going, "What? What?" You know, it just didn’t seem fair, so I wanted to let people know from me, and it’s been an amazing process. And yeah, it has been in the last week, I’m trying to play catch-up for all the people, actually just a small handful of people I cared about in L.A.

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When a celebrity comes out, there is a tendency among some gay people to try to make that person a poster child for activism or hold them up as a spokesperson. Is that a role you’re willing to step into, or is it something you haven’t begun to think about?
Well, two things come to mind. First of all, if they were to look for a spokesperson, you’d think they’d look for someone with a bigger track record behind them -- like Ms. Locke here. [Laughs] But the truth is that coming out is a political act these days because it has so many ramifications. I do a lot of speaking engagements and I have my little skin care company, so I go to trade shows and I interact with the public quite frequently. I haven’t been on prime time in many years on a regular basis, so when I’ve gone out into the Midwest or down in Florida or Louisiana, I was really surprised by the extent of attention I got by people who knew me immediately, who responded to me so beautifully and with a great deal of affection. It surprised me.

The message I get is that I’m America’s mom. And because research seems to show that people who have someone who is gay in their family — or a friend or just know someone in the community who is gay — they seem to have a more open attitude about gay and lesbian issues. So I can say I’m still that mom. I am still the same person. I’m nonthreatening, I’m very friendly, I’m accessible, and if they can say, "OK, well, she’s a lesbian, maybe that’s not such a scary thing. And if she can come out and say that without too much fear, then maybe I can do that." If it makes a difference to a couple of people, then I guess it’s worthwhile. I certainly got tired of hiding to the extent that I was.

Of course. How difficult was it for you to hide? You have a partner. You must have wanted to be open with regard to each other.
I wasn’t so much hiding, but I would be very circumspect. There were times where I would choose not to put my arm around her, or I’d be aware that people were looking, or, Oh, there is a camera, let’s just move away, honey. I just was feeling that on this trip.

On the cruise?
Yeah, [there were] a lot of cameras around. I expect I’m in a few home movies out there. It kind of makes me nauseous to think about that, but that’s not a new thing. I’m just really a wallflower. So I knew that this was probably going to come at one point, and obviously I wasn’t fighting too hard.

How was it being sort of out and open on the ship? Were you approached?
Yeah, there was one great woman, or what she said was great. She said, “Oh, my, you look fabulous, honey. Oh, my God, you look beautiful. Do you know how beautiful?” It was a very nice reception.

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When Prop. 8 was happening, did you consider coming out then?
No, no, that would have seemed opportunistic. I didn’t see the point in that. I may be wrong, but that’s where I was at that point. It was certainly just heartbreaking to see that go down — I didn’t expect that at all. I really thought we were going to be OK.

You have been so open about battling breast cancer and becoming sober. Is this also part of a trajectory of living an open and honest life?

As part of the sober program, it does say that we are as sick as our secrets. I’m not interested in making my life an open book, but I don’t like to pretend that things are different than they are. That’s important to me.

Do you think getting sober helped you to really see that you might be gay?
I don’t know that for sure, but I will tell you, I have been sober for a little over 19 years, and for the first 10 years of my sobriety I did very little work at self-examination, which is why I had to go get married again. I had to learn a lot about what my part was in all the things that happened in my life. For a long time I sort clung to the victim attitude, that “Gee, look at the sorry hand I’ve been dealt.” It’s a sad way to go through life, but it was what I was doing. And when I got out of that last marriage, I had kind of a breakdown. I started therapy and really recommitted myself to the program and started doing the work that I dragged my feet about earlier. It wasn’t long after that, that my mother died. I don’t think that was a small contribution to the awakening, to laying of groundwork for waking up. My youngest kids went off to college, so I wasn’t worried about the judgment and I wasn’t responsible for someone on a daily basis. I was sober and in a good place and open, so the timing was just very fruitful. 

You played a lesbian in the 1993 CBS Schoolbreak Special Other Mothers. When you took on that role, did you have any idea you might be gay?
Not a clue, nothing. Not a clue.

Was it just a job to you, or was there something important about telling that story at that time?
I think it was important to tell the story, [but] it was just a job, and I liked playing the part. I thought, Oh, look at me, I’m out there.

Recently you played Lilly Rush’s mother on Cold Case, in a story that dealt with alcoholism. Do we think we might be seeing more lesbian roles coming from you now?
I have the expectation that all sorts of things will come my way. I don’t know what it would be like. No one knew I was sober when I did those other parts. It had nothing to do with me being a sober woman.

Are you in touch with any of your former castmates from Family and Family Ties?
We all did the Today show two years ago — it was our 20th anniversary — and Nancy [Locke] was with me in New York when we did that, and she met all the cast. Michael Gross and his wife and Nancy and I have gotten together on several occasions. And Justine [Bateman] and Tina [Yothers] and their husbands and Nancy and I all got together last Valentine’s Day at the Magic Castle. We had a great time.

Now that you are taking the reins and making this big announcement, where do you go from here, from this coming-out point?
You know, I don’t know. I expect all sorts of questions and maybe interviews and asks for support and events usually follow something like this. If that happens, great; if it doesn’t, that’s OK too. I’ve lived a really nice life just the way I’ve been living.

Watch Baxter's inteview with Matt Lauer on The Today Show.

Read more of Tracy E. Gilchrist's stories.

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Tracy E. Gilchrist

<p>Cinephile, cyclist, proud cat lady and unabashed Pretty Little Liars guru.</p>

<p>Cinephile, cyclist, proud cat lady and unabashed Pretty Little Liars guru.</p>