Maybe it’s because I watched all of her made-for-TV movies.
Maybe it’s because the theme song to Family Ties still gets stuck in my head now and then.
Maybe it’s because, growing up in suburbia in the 1980s, television played a formidable role in raising me, teaching me what was right and what was wrong and what was supposedly normal. And nothing said “normal” quite like family sitcoms. (Frightening, I know.)
So when Meredith Baxter told the world she’s a lesbian, I couldn’t help but smile.
Baxter, who played my favourite TV mom, Elyse Keaton, has generally kept herself out of the spotlight. In part, this says something about her ability to negotiate personal space and privacy for herself and her family in an industry obsessed with the minutiae of celebrity gossip.
But more to the point, I think her invisibility in the media has something to do with her age and gender and her calmness as a human being.
As a real-life mother of five, Baxter either kept the cameras away from her family or else the cameras weren’t interested because, in spite of her multiple marriages, there was nothing juicy to uncover.
Baxter is not the stuff of headlines. Like Elyse Keaton, Baxter seems pretty grounded. Sure, she starred in TV movies playing characters who were out of control: she taught me about eating disorders, drug addiction and murderous divorcees raging against their ex-husbands.
But all along the media treated her as though her own life mirrored the safe sitcom that made her career.
Granted, the Keaton family were the hippies on the block, willing to discuss teen pregnancy and make jokes about Reagan, but their Ohio home was still a bastion of normality and heterosexuality.
This is why it rocked my world when Baxter made her big announcement, even though she acknowledged that she was merely telling her side of the story before the tabloids exposed her.
Still. When was the last time a woman over 60 was given the airtime to discuss sexuality at all? And here was Baxter, a beautiful and clearly together woman talking about something she could have kept private.
“This is a political act, even though that’s not what it feels like to me,” she said. “If anybody knows someone who’s gay or lesbian… they’re less likely to vote against them to take away their rights… If I can be that lesbian you know now — okay.”
Baxter publicly outing herself reminded me that the most radical way to treat sexuality is to make it normal. And if Baxter isn’t the perfect person to do that, I don’t know who is.