Meredith Baxter to escape "Carmageddon" while spending Pride in San Diego

The beloved actress and out lesbian will be the Grand Marshal of the parade on Saturday

SAN DIEGO -- Meredith Baxter, the Grand Marshal for the 37th annual San Diego Pride Parade, is someone who has "family ties" to both San Diego and the LGBT community.

While Angelenos await the impending doom of the closure of the 405 freeway this weekend (what is being called "Carmageddon"), Baxter, her partner Nancy Locke, and friend Suzanne Westenhoefer will be tooling down the freeway in a direction away from the ensuring chaos, headed to San Diego Pride.

While contemplating the best routes to San Diego earlier this week, Baxter took a few moments to speak to San Diego Gay & Lesbian News.

Family ties and more

Her television and film credits on Wikipedia is a mile long, but Baxter first came into our living rooms as the big sister Nancy to Kristy McNichol's Buddy in the late 70s television show, "Family." Her next gig was as one half of "Bridget Loves Bernie," which only lasted a year, but garnered her a second husband, David Birney, who played the other half.

The show that made her a household name, however, was as hippy mom Elyze Keaton to the Young Republican upstart Alex, played by Michael J. Fox in "Family Ties," a show that ran seven years (1982-87) and received multiple awards.

To San Diegans, Baxter is even better known for playing a much different type of mother -- Betty Broderick -- the onetime La Jolla socialite-turned-bitter woman who murdered her ex-husband and his new, much younger wife in 1989, while they slept in their Marston Hills home in Hillcrest.

It was one of the biggest scandals in the history of San Diego and had people riveted to the daily headlines for years. Baxter, who was the same age as Broderick and resembled her quite a bit in her socialite years, made two Lifetime movies about the scandal and its ensuing legal dramas, "A Woman Scorned: The Betty Broderick Story" and "Her Final Fury: Betty Broderick, The Last Chapter," both in 1992.

"Dangerous territory"

Two years ago Baxter came out after she and her then partner of five years, Nancy Locke, decided to take the inaugural eco-friendly Sweet cruise out of New Orleans.

Although the hurricane in the Gulf of Mexico that the ship sailed directly into might have been a metaphor for things to come, Baxter hadn't considered the ramifications that going on a lesbian cruise with 1,200 other women might pose, nor the new course it might chart out for her life.

"Do you ever know [these things]?" she asked. "I knew I was flirting with dangerous territory, because although I was out to family and friends, professionally I had kept a lid on it. I hadn't really thought about [coming out]."

When the cruise ended, she quickly realized she better start thinking about it. As rumors swirled and the National Enquirer gathered information to break the story, she pondered how to keep control.

"How do you do that, anyway?" she remembered thinking. "What do you do? Get a billboard? Release a birth announcement?" As the Enquirer closed in, Baxter decided to take the matter into her own hands.

She hired Howard Bragman, the openly gay public relations guru who has helped nearly a dozen high profile athletes and celebrities come out, and came out. Bragman most recently has escorted country music star Chely Wright and Chaz Bono through their coming out publicity tours.

"Howard has a formula: Today [Show] -- Oprah -- book," she laughed. And that is exactly what she did.

"But I had no faith," she recalled. The rumors and media attention had escalated, giving the newly launched Sweet cruise company some unexpected but welcome PR, but adding pressure on Baxter.

"I thought I was setting myself on fire and that my career would go down in flames -- I was in 'Family Ties' -- I just didn't think that people would be able to put those two things together," she said.

Baxter was genuinely scared and nervous going into the interview with her one-time co-host (she had a short gig on Today in 2006), but when it was all said and done, she walked out a free woman.

"When Nancy and I left the studio that day, there was a gentle, winter rain, and I felt totally unburdened. Any doubts I had were gone; it was immediately freeing, in so many ways.

"We are as sick as our secrets," she said. "It was a real gift to have that removed."

Baxter's life to that point had many secrets, she was emotionally and sometimes physically battered in her 15-year marriage to David Birney, something she outlines in her book, "Untied," released in 2010.

When you are abused, there is a lot of shame and lack of self-worth involved, so you don't talk much about it.

"What was so damaging and corrosive, were the stories I told myself that allowed me to stay in the situation," she said.

Why did it take her so long to come out? That is not an easy question nor does it have an easy answer.

"It was so totally unknown to myself. I grew up so fearful and so shut down, I spent my whole life trying to keep my head above water and in doing so, I often chose the safest path." Sometimes those paths involved marriage to men.

Despite her three unhappy marriages and the fact that even her own therapist agrees that her current relationship is the healthiest one she has ever had, Baxter doesn't necessarily buy into the fact that she was hiding who she was all along.

This is who she is today and she fully embraces it, but she is the first to attest to the fact she wasn't living a lie throughout her life up until now, because despite some of the pain, she was a devoted wife and mother.

"I just can't say I've 'been here' my whole life," she said.

She is fully aware this might unravel some, challenge many and even bring the ire of others; but she is very matter of fact about it and it's clear she owns every bit of it.

"We shouldn't need an excuse for equal rights," she said. "The basis of this country is freedom of choice. This gives me a sense of community, a sense of belonging, and I shouldn't need an excuse to live the way I want to live."

When you consider all she has been through, you realize this may indeed be just another chapter in her life.

A quieter life

After having raised five children while juggling a busy career and three marriages for all those years, her life is much quieter these days.

She doesn't have a lot of work, but she appears content with that. Her partner is a general contractor and has a large job that will keep them pretty much tied to the Los Angeles area through Christmas.

One thing she is certain of, her lack of work isn't a reflection upon her coming out.

"It's more ageism," she said. "I'm a 64-year-old woman; they don't want to see me on television."

Although her amazing looks should belie this -- she props up her argument with the fact her most recent gig is a voice on an animated cable television series, "Dan vs." -- where she is again paired up with her previous sitcom husband, Michael Gross.

"The scripts were very funny and I love working with [Michael]," she said. "But my face isn't on TV."

She does keep somewhat busy with her many speaking engagements around the country, where she tackles breast cancer, domestic abuse and addiction topics (she is a recovering alcoholic).

Untied at last

Baxter is a two-time breast cancer survivor, having successfully battled the second bout of the deadly disease just as she was launching the book tour for "Untied."

After the Parade on Saturday you can find Baxter at the Festival, where she will greet you with her warm, funny and genuine personality at a book signing for "Untied."

She is hoping you stop by and keep her mind off her return trip to "Carmageddon."

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