For seven seasons Meredith Baxter played mom to Alex, Mallory, Jennifer, and a generation of people who wished they could come home from school to a woman like Elyse Keaton. In the years that followed Family Ties, she carved out a career as the undisputed TV-movie queen, Emmy-nominated for her work as murderess Betty Broderick in Her Final Fury and for playing a lesbian mom in Other Mothers.
But it's her latest role as author, public speaker, and — yes — a lesbian that has endeared the 63-year-old actress to a whole new group of fans. In the 15 months since she came out in The Advocate, in People magazine, and on the Today show, Baxter has given new voice to gay issues and, in the process, found a whole new community of friends she says excites her.
With her new book, Untied, Baxter talks about coming to terms with being gay and why she felt like she was lighting herself on fire when she made her big television announcement. But it’s her frank and often emotional memories of being an abused wife that seem to have gotten the most attention.
Baxter talks to The Advocate about the person who claims he suspected she might be gay long before she did, how she really feels about her ex-husband, and why her partner, Nancy Locke, still brings a smile to her face every day.
The Advocate: You’re on quite the media tour this week.
Meredith Baxter: I know. It feels like it's been me, Charlie Sheen, and Gadhafi. I hope someone else has been in there, because it’s just felt overwhelming, too much exposure.
Well, I think you come across as the most stable of the three, so there’s that.
Well, you know, the bar has been set pretty low. It makes me look good.
It’s been about 15 months since you came out on the Today show. What has been the most rewarding part of the last year and three months for you?
In the most simplistic way, I’d say relaxation. How do I describe this? The image that comes to mind I’m sure wont be helpful at all. You know with Jello, if you’ve ever had squares of Jello, and they’ve been cut up and put in a container, there’s lots of air pockets. Well what came to mind was, all my squares of Jello have settled. I don’t feel like there’s undiscovered pockets in me, stuff I have to explain or be careful of or don’t understand. I have a lot clarity. Won’t it be fun if one day, even Marianne Williamson is saying, “When your Jello settles…” That will become the arbiter of how we feel.
Did anyone ever say to you that they suspected you might be gay before you yourself knew?
Well, if you make the mistake of reading the comments after some of the articles on the Internet, a lot of people have said, “Oh, I knew she was a lesbian.” I love it when people don’t know you at all but they know very clearly what was going on with you. I really wish I could say I had some intuition, that I was more in touch with myself. But the sad truth is I wasn’t. I was a total mystery to myself. The other day I was reading some of the letters women have sent me, saying, “I didn’t know. I did what I was supposed to do. I got married. I was a good girl. That’s what I knew, that’s what my family had shown me. For better or for worse, you get married and you have kids.” So that’s what I did. I didn’t stop to question whether this was right or wrong, I just did it. And I never did anything because it felt like the right thing to do — most things were done in some kind of rebellion or a “fuck you” thing to my parents — but it was not because I felt like I was doing something that was true to me. I had no idea what was true to me. In some sense, I understand. People want to understand it, and if they don’t understand it, they make up their own story and say, “That’s what’s true.”
So much attention is paid in the media to this notion of “late-in-life lesbians.” You came out, Kelly McGillis came out, and that’s how the media sold it. What’s your take on that label?
I think that kind of phrase helps feed this idea of “She couldn’t find a man. so she had to go to women.” Or “She failed at men, now ... ” It doesn’t have a nice feel to it.
Going into your appearance on Today, you said you felt like you’d just set yourself on fire. Looking back, do you have any regrets about how it was handled?
I would have done it differently, but I don’t what that would have been. I don’t know what that would have looked like. I read one thing, it says: “Couldn’t she have just come out as bisexual?” [Laughs] OK, if that had been the truth, but even then, how do you do that without making some kind of an announcement? I write in my book that my sort of playful idea was “Can I put like a birth announcement in the paper?” So if I didn’t do it on television, what was I supposed to do? I guess just start telling people gradually. That makes sense if someone’s not after you, which is what it felt like for me. I didn’t want someone else to run and make something up.
When I first heard you were going to be writing a book, I wondered if this was going to be your coming-out memoir. But you go so much deeper than that. How did you decide how far to go with this book?
I sort of felt when the book was just being talked about that what created their interest was the whole coming-out thing. No one said, “This is what we want you to write about.” Nobody made any demands on me. I certainly felt, Oh please, let me have more to offer than just coming out on television. But I wasn’t really sure that I did, so I had to go back and stop and think, OK, what have I learned in my life? I’m a 63-year-old woman who has gone through a huge change, not just the sexuality, but I’ve been sober for coming up on 21 years.
Which leads me to wonder — the addiction and the abuse you document in the book. Do you think, looking back, that they’re major contributors to not knowing sooner in life that you were gay?
Well, I had other fish to fry. I was so intensely unhappy in my childhood, and then I married someone and went into a relationship that really couldn’t have been any different from that. I was trying to keep my head above water all the time. I didn’t have time to stop and think, Hmm. Who lights my fire? My feelings were so intensely distraught and unhappy all of the time that my mantra was literally, “I can live through this.” A good part of that was because of the intensely horrible relationship between my husband and I, despite his loud pretense that it wasn’t.
Were you expecting that sort of reaction from David [Birney, Meredith’s ex-husband]? Because he essentially denied ever physically or verbally abusing you. And then I saw this interview you did with PopEater where you actually described him as a “good guy.”
I just saw that the other day, and I thought, I wonder why I said that. I think what I wanted to say was that he’s not a demon, and I didn’t set out to demonize him. That was not my perception of what I wrote. I really thought I tried to give a pretty even portrait and I was actually pretty generous to him. I didn’t say so many things. Because it wasn’t about, “Here’s a litany of things, what did David do to me?” It wasn’t about that. I was trying to talk about what happened and what I learned from it and what I tell myself. I only talked about stuff that I had some dialogue around. He’s not a hideous human being. I think he might be a misogynist. He might have difficulty with successful women. I don’t know really what his issues are. I could guess, but I’m not going to go any further than that. I guess I was trying to give him the benefit of the doubt.
I love the part in the book where you describe meeting your partner, Nancy, for the first time. I think it’s really interesting that your first interactions with her were related to your sobriety. Do you think meeting her in that way and on those terms helped to set the stage for what would become your relationship?
You know, it just occurred to me as you were asking this, for me personally and how tentative I am in going into relationships, that it unfolded in the perfect way because we weren’t having social chats. She was talking about her issues and I was only talking if I had some advice to give or to talk about my own experiences. I wasn’t talking about myself. So I got to learn lots of things about her ...
Which is probably unusual for you, considering most of the time, I’m assuming, you start a relationship with the other person knowing a lot about you based on who you are.
Yeah, I loved this. And it also speaks to something else ... I’m very happy working with people in the program, spending time on the phone with people. They say, “Hi, Meredith, how are you doing today?” And I’m able to say, “I’m fine, let’s talk about you.” I want to cut to the chase. I want to be about what’s going on with them, because that’s what I can bring to the table. I like that it’s not socially chatty stuff, because I get to feel I’m of service. That’s what I was able to do with Nancy, and at the same time, get to learn some stuff about her. I wasn’t really putting it in my wall safe anywhere, because I didn’t know if we were ever going to talk again, and I certainly didn’t think we were actually going to meet until we started talking a little bit differently. And I already had a good sense of her, of her laughter and her energy. And then when you meet her ... have you seen her in any pictures?
Yes, I have. We actually included you in our “Couples to Admire” feature.
I have to say, for me, she has the most beautiful smile. I love it.
Yes! Me too. We were at the gym this morning. I was watching her across the gym talk to some guy she knows there, and I just felt this well of excitement because not only do I think she’s so beautiful, but she has this intelligent and interesting aspect to her that makes you want to go, “Who is that woman? I’ve got to know more about her.” There’s something really compelling about the way she handles herself and the way she walks around.
When you finally did meet and you tried to slip in the whole “Oh, and by the way, I like women.”
Well, I didn’t know how to do it then either.
Like a lot of people in your life, she seemed genuinely surprised. Did you have anyone who was not at all surprised?
No. Not really. My oldest boy said, “I knew.” But I kind of write him off as a smartass in that way. I’ve read when people say they knew. I don’t know how they knew. You know, here’s the truth, and you might have caught this in the book. There was a time when I was going the divorce with David when it was really hairy. I had a terrible time with all of the depositions I had to go through. I don’t know how I arrived at this, I truly don’t, but I think I’d done a job where I cut my hair, and I cut it even shorter, and I had my hairdresser buzz me up the back. And I wore trousers and wing tips and jackets. To this day, I don’t know how that happened. God, it makes me want to cry, but men were not my friends. I had felt targeted and ill-used and I didn’t know how to maneuver myself in that world very well, so I think the only defense I felt I had against them was, “I know, I’ll dress like one.” I really don’t know what I thought, but that was my armor.
What have you learned most about yourself since coming out to yourself?
You know, I don’t know. I’m so slow to learn things. I’m not the sharpest knife in the drawer along that line. Somebody else has to learn something and tell me, and then I’ll go, “Oh, oh, yeah. OK.” I think it wasn’t until really the writing of the book ... and I’ll tell you. I remember Nancy and I were in New York meeting with my literary agent and Howard Bragman and we were looking out over Manhattan at night with the Chrysler building all lit up, and all I could think of was, I don’t know why we’re talking about a book. I can’t do a book. There’s not going to be any book. However, here we are. I didn’t think it was going to be possible. It has been an extraordinary accomplishment for me to be able to say, “I can do a lot more than I thought I could.” I just had a real, real low self-esteem. It also allowed me to walk around and be able to say, “I have a community now.” I was never part of the Hollywood community. I never played that game. I just didn’t go out. I was a stick-in-the-mud. Now, part of it, I started to get a community in my 12-step program. Now I have even more a sense of community within the gay community. And I’m really starting to like that a lot. Particularly because I never had any friends. This is delicious. Poor Nancy knows, if we get invited to a party or dinner at somebody’s house, even if she’s tired, she’s gonna lose that one because I’ve got to go. I have to be around people. It’s so exciting to me.
I know you’re involved in the Web series We Have to Stop Now, and you’ve played a couple of gay parts here and there. Do you look forward to playing gay roles now?
Oh, honey, I look forward to playing a role. It’s been a long slow period. I don’t care whether they’re gay or straight, I just want an acting job.
Do you think coming out has hurt those prospects?
I don’t know. I wasn’t working that much beforehand, so I can’t say that’s what slowed me down. It may or may not have, but that’s something I may not ever know. I think it’s more a symptom of age, to be honest.
In theater, TV, film?
It doesn’t matter. I just want to work. I do a lot of ... I love speaking engagements, and I’ve spoken on domestic abuse, which I really think is a good place for me to be because I think I understand a lot of the dynamics there and my goal is to talk to women and help them get away from that sense of victimization, because it’s toxic. It feeds on itself. If you stay a victim, you will continue making the same mistakes over and over again. So I’ll just keep doing that until some acting job comes along.