Dec. 2, 2009 — -- Today, Meredith Baxter revealed the gender to which her heart is truly tied: women.
Baxter, the actress best known for playing hippie mom Elyse Keaton on the 1980s sitcom "Family Ties," announced that she's a lesbian and has been keeping her sexual preference a secret for seven years.
"I am a lesbian and it was a later-in-life recognition," Baxter said on NBC's "Today" show. "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 and thrice divorced, came out following the National Enquirer's November report that she was spotted "traveling with a female friend" on a Caribbean cruise sponsored by lesbian travel company Sweet.
"I've always lived a very private life." she said on "Today." "To come out and disclose stuff is very antithetical to who I am. ... [But] I did not want some tabloid to take the story and make it up -- I wanted it to be in my own words."
How did Baxter realize she was a lesbian? The actress said that after many failed relationships with men, seven years ago she started her first relationship with a woman, and her entire world view changed.
"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."
Now, Baxter is four years into a relationship with Nancy Locke, a contractor she met through mutual friends. Her on-screen "Family Ties" family and her real life relatives knew about Locke and Baxter's sexuality before today's public declaration. When Baxter told her five children, they surprised her by revealing they already thought she was a lesbian.
"I said, 'I think I'm gay,' and my oldest boy said, 'I knew,' " the actress said. "The support from my family and anyone close to me has been so immediate and unqualified. I've really been blessed."
Baxter Joins Clique of Later-in-Life Lesbians
Having come out so publicly, Baxter said she sees herself as a new 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."
Baxter joins a coterie of famous female entertainers to realize later in life that they're lesbians. Earlier this year, "Top Gun" star Kelly McGillis confirmed rumors that she is a lesbian, saying she's "done with the man thing."
"I did that. I need to move on in life," the 52-year-old actress told SheWired.com in April, adding that she was "definitely" looking for a woman.
In November 2008, comedian Wanda Sykes disclosed during a rally in Las Vegas that she had been in a same-sex marriage since October of that year.
"You know, I don't really talk about my sexual orientation," said Sykes, 45. "I didn't feel like I had to. I was just living my life, not necessarily in the closet, but I was living my life."
Comedian Carol Leifer, 53, was married and dated only men for the first 39 years of her life -- one of them was Jerry Seinfeld. But at 40, she had a fling with a woman and fell in love.
Leifer believes a growing number of middle-aged women are listening to what she calls the "Sapphic siren call," or as Elaine Benes, the "Seinfeld" character based on Leifer, would say, "joining the other team."
"Life threw me a surprise party," she told ABCNews.com. "Not that there's anything wrong with that. I was looking for something fun and chic. I didn't think it would redefine me as a person.
"My feelings for men were very real and powerful, but I fell in love with my partner," she said. "It's been the best relationship of my life."
In 2004, "Sex and the City" star Cynthia Nixon left her boyfriend of 15 years and their two children and began seeing a female public school advocate, whom she'd met while working on a campaign to reduce class sizes in New York City.
"I have been with men all my life and had never met a woman I had fallen in love with before," Nixon told the London Daily Mirror. "But when I did, it didn't seem so strange. It didn't change who I am. I'm just a woman who fell in love with a woman."
Novelist and social critic Susan Sontag remained in the closet until her longtime lover, photographer Annie Leibovitz, outed her posthumously. Sontag, who had been married and had a son, died of cancer in 2004 at the age of 71. She had been in a romantic relationship with Leibovitz, now 59, since 1989.
ABC News' Susan James contributed to this story.