Before Baxter, 62, first started dating women seven years ago, the thought of being gay "had never crossed my mind," she tells PEOPLE. Having been in three failed marriages to men (most famously to actor David Birney), she says of her many difficult years before coming out, "I was never comfortable with myself." But she's quick to add, "That doesn't mean I was questioning."
Now in a four-year relationship with building contractor Nancy Locke – the couple have lived together for two years – the actress, who continues to act and run a skincare company, says, "I feel like I'm being honest for the first time."
Baxter was open about her new-found identity almost immediately with her five kids. Her son Peter’s reaction, like that of his siblings, was both reassuring and supportive. "I just couldn't stop smiling," says Peter, 25, "because she finally figured it out."
For much more about Baxter, her decision to come out and her life with her partner, pick up this week's issue of PEOPLE