Meredith Baxter "I'm a Lesbian Mom"

updated 12/14/2009 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/14/2009 AT 01:00 AM EST

All her life, Meredith Baxter has been wary of labels. "They make me cringe because I think, 'Who can live up to any of that stuff?'" says the actress, who was forced to do just that when she played supermother Elyse Keaton on the hit '80s sitcom Family Ties. "I reluctantly held this position as 'America's mom' for seven years." But now a visibly nervous Baxter is finally ready to embrace a whole new and utterly surprising L-word, along with all the baggage that comes with it. Sitting in the den of her Los Angeles home, the thrice-married actress finally lets the news out: "I'm a lesbian mom."

It's a revelation that no one saw coming—least of all Baxter herself. While her career has been going strong for four decades (since Family Ties, she's specialized in women-in-peril TV movies like 1992's A Woman Scorned: The Betty Broderick Story), her personal life always proved torturous. "I had been so profoundly unhappy, and I never knew that was why," says Baxter, 62, who was unaware of her sexual identity until seven years ago. "I'm happy for the first time in my life." Helping Baxter achieve that bliss: her partner of four years, Nancy Locke, a building contractor. The couple, who moved in together two years ago, "spend a lot of time talking," says Locke, 54, "and do a lot of laughing."

Baxter's journey to such happiness was not a simple one. As she wrapped Family Ties in 1989, the same year her troubled 15-year marriage to actor David Birney, now 70 (whose name she used for much of her career), came to an end (her first marriage, to costumer Robert Lewis Bush, ended in 1969), Baxter finally overcame her battle with alcoholism. "When you're drinking the way I was drinking, you're not open to learning anything about yourself," says Baxter, who has been sober since 1990 (and later met Locke through mutual friends in a 12-step program). "When you start the self-examination, focus on what's real as opposed to fantasy, then you're bound to start discovering things about yourself." Adds daughter Mollie, 25: "There was no opportunity for self-reflection. She was in some really damaging marriages."

Still, explaining such a huge discovery is difficult for the well-spoken actress. For much of her life, "it never once occurred to me that I was gay." Despite playing a lesbian in the 1993 TV movie Other Mothers and having her first-ever fling with a woman that same year, "no lights went off for me," says Baxter, who at the time explained away the romance as a "natural" extension of her feelings.

After her third failed marriage, to the late screenwriter Michael Blodgett, ended in 2000 after five years, Baxter compares her realization about being gay to what happened in seventh grade when, after years of blurry vision, she put on a friend's eyeglasses. "I almost started to cry. I could see individual leaves on trees that I thought were just lollipops. I just didn't know that that was the way things looked," she recalls. "That was kind of the way it was for me the first time I was with a woman: It was like, 'Okay, I get it.'"

In 2002, a few months into her first substantial relationship with a woman, she was ready to share the news with those around her, including her five kids, Ted, 42, Eva, 40, Kate, 35, and twins Peter and Mollie, 25. She recalls nervously telling Peter while they were driving, only gathering the courage to speak "when I knew that both of our eyes would be straight forward." She shouldn't have worried: "I was like, 'Mom, if this is what makes you happy, then that's great,'" says Peter. "You could hear that it made so much more sense to her than any of her past relationships. I just couldn't stop smiling, because she finally figured it out."

Her friends and family offered unconditional acceptance, but Baxter approached coming out publicly with more caution. Most famous for her work as the all-American mom, Baxter worried about the repercussions of revealing her sexual identity. "You don't know what kind of information is going to go into the decision to cast or not to cast you," she says. "It's hard enough to get a job. Why make it harder?"

Baxter never made any public declarations, but she also never made any great attempts to hide it. Locke visited Baxter on the sets of her various projects and joined her at a 2008 dinner with her Family Ties costars, including Michael J. Fox and Justine Bateman, after a reunion appearance on the Today show. (Coming out to her TV family was much like telling her real clan; "a nonissue," she says.) And early last month, Baxter and Locke went on a predominantly lesbian cruise to the Caribbean with members of the press on board. "I think in many ways I kept trying to push it," she says of coming out. "If someone was going to draw conclusions, fine. It relieves me of the obligation." Still, as soon as Baxter got off the ship, she called her manager to arrange a lunch to discuss finally letting the world know, "just so it's done," she says. But before they could meet, the tabloids began reporting about Baxter's trip on the cruise.

While the private Baxter is nervous about coming out so publicly, she's also reluctant to pass up the opportunity to use her stature for good as a spokeswoman for the gay community. "People still know me and respond very nicely to me," she says. "I looked at the research that's been done when people know someone who is gay or lesbian; they tend to have a more supportive, positive attitude toward gay issues. So, what I want to say [to people] is, 'You know me. And anything that you vote on that is going against gay rights, that affects me too, in case you want to think about that." (As for whether she would ever want to marry Locke should gay marriage become legal, Baxter says she's wary after the demises of her three marriages: "It has nothing to do with Nancy or how much I love her," she says. "Being a wife was not a great experience for me.")

Baxter is confident in her decision to come out, but she's clearly filled with a whirlwind of emotions. Asked if this process is scary, her whole body rocks back and forth for a moment as she considers the question. When she finally speaks, the words are barely a whisper: "You have no idea." Her trepidation isn't just from her sharing her sexual orientation, but her whole self.

But she's growing more confident with each passing day. Recently she and Locke went to see the play Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde at the Skirball Cultural Center near their L.A. home. There, in a large public space, Baxter nonchalantly put her arm around her partner. "If someone's gonna say something, I don't care," she says. "For the first time, I'm where I want to be."

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