For seven years, actress Meredith Baxter has been hiding a secret.
Now Baxter, who played the devoted hippie mom constantly butting heads with her conservative kids on “Family Ties,” is making a public admission.
“I am a lesbian and it was a later-in-life recognition,” she told Matt Lauer on TODAY. “Some people would say, well, you’re living a lie and, you know, the truth is — not at all. This has only been for the past seven years.”
Baxter, 62, though anxious, decided to come out on national television after her sexuality became tabloid fodder.
More Entertainment stories
Autistic ballerina dances her way into hearts
In a popular YouTube video, the beaming little ballerina dances an entire four-minute routine seemingly perfectly, matchin...
- Every on-screen drink in 'Mad Men' in 5 minutes
- See the 'Dancing' stars' most memorable moves
- Emmy's biggest snubs? Cranston, Hamm, more
- 'Toy Story' toys burn up in prank on mom
- Autistic ballerina dances her way into hearts
“I’ve always lived a very private life,” said the actress, who’s never even had a publicist. “To come out and disclose stuff is very antithetical to who I am.”
The National Enquirer reported that Baxter was spotted last month aboard a Caribbean cruise sponsored by lesbian travel company Sweet, writing that she was seen “traveling with a female friend, and she seemed very relaxed and comfortable.”
Baxter admitted that she did indeed take the vacation with her girlfriend, despite the threat that the couple would be outed.
“I don’t want to be worried all the time,” she said. “I knew I was pushing it.”
On Tuesday, celebrity blogger Perez Hilton, known for bullying stars such as Neil Patrick Harris and Lance Bass to out themselves, posted photos of Baxter nuzzling her girlfriend.
Such exposure was exactly what Baxter wanted to avoid, and that led her to share her story.
“I did not want some tabloid to take the story and make it up — I wanted it to be in my own words,” she told Lauer.
Baxter says that her relationship with men was complicated, and it took her decades to understand why.
In 1966 she married her first husband, Robert Lewis Bush, and they divorced five years later; she married her second husband, David Birney, in 1974, and they divorced in 1989; she married her third husband, Michael Blodgett, in 1995, and they divorced in 2000.
She explained that she deliberately chose to be with men with whom she clashed, so that she could blame them for the end of the relationship. “It never occurred to me to think, oh, [the problem is] me,” she said.
Then, seven years ago, she had a relationship with a woman and concluded that she was homosexual. Suddenly, things seemed to make sense.
“I got involved with someone I never expected to get involved with, and it was that kind of awakening,” she said. “I never fought it because it was like, oh, I understand why I had the issues I had early in life. I had a great deal of difficulty connecting with men in relationships.”
‘We live very out’
Baxter has been with her current girlfriend, Nancy Locke, a contractor she met through mutual friends, for the past four years. Because Locke is openly lesbian, their relationship has not been kept a closely guarded secret.
“I had to reach a level of comfort because it wasn’t fair to push her back into secrecy,” she said. “We live very out lives in Los Angeles.”
But, until now, that level of comfort only extended so far. Last year, Baxter and her former “Family Ties” cast mates reunited on TODAY. Locke stayed back at the hotel, still a part of Baxter’s life that she wasn’t yet ready to reveal to the world.
Both Baxter’s former on-screen family and her real family have known about her sexuality, though she was initially nervous about telling her five children.
“I said, ‘I think I’m gay,’ and my oldest boy said, ‘I knew,’ ” Baxter laughed. “The support from my family and anyone close to me has been so immediate and unqualified. I’ve really been blessed.”Slideshow: ‘Family Ties’ cast is all grown up
Baxter was hand-picked by “Family Ties” creator and producer Gary David Goldberg to play mom Elyse Keaton on the critically acclaimed sitcom, which ran from 1982 to 1989. The show’s wit and humor came from the relationship between liberal parents Elyse and Steven (played by Michael Gross) and their conservative children, specifically, card-carrying young Republican Alex P. Keaton, played by the show’s breakout star, Michael J. Fox.
When the show ended, Baxter went on to direct and star in several TV movies, winning a daytime Emmy Award in 1993 for portraying a lesbian mom in the CBS Schoolbreak Special, “Other Mothers.”
These days, she’s taken on a few roles, including promoting her skin care line, Meredith Baxter Simple Works. She is also a public speaker and advocate, traveling the country discussing her personal battles with breast cancer and alcoholism.
Now that she is coming out, she also sees herself as an advocate for gay rights.
“This is a political act, even though that’s not what it feels like to me,” she said. “If anyone knows someone who’s gay or lesbian … they’re less likely to vote against them to take away their rights. I can be that lesbian you know now …”
© 2012 MSNBC Interactive. Reprints