'A Secret Love': A heart-warming story about two women's love in an era when it was illegal
In a time when one couldn't even think about a woman being with another, they were the pioneers of a different kind of love
Netflix's 'A Secret Love' is a heartwarming and poignant story of two women, Terry Donahue, 92, and Pat Henschel, 89, and their love that has stood the test of time.
Sparks flew the very first time they met but their love remained a well-guarded secret for over seven decades and not even their close family or their inner circles knew of them being gay, until a few years ago. The documentary chronicles this pure and amaranthine love from the time Terry and Pat first met in 1947 to now, 70 years in the future. Furthermore, it provides background to life in the 1940s and 50s when being queer was basically illegal.
Terry and Pat are two young women in love who only followed along the paths that their heart paved for them, although their journey has been anything but easy. They had decided to conceal their sexual orientation and the status of their relationship because of the society's conservative views on homosexuality and preconceived notion of love existing only between a man and a woman, back in the day.
With every year that passed, they only got accustomed to harboring the secret, even if it weighed heavily on their hearts and they hated lying to their families. Until three years ago, the two insisted on referring to each other as best friends or cousins.
Terry and Pat both grew up in Canada but only met each other when they were 22 and 19 respectively. The times were hard, with the world being plagued by the Great Depression, and money was tight. After school, activities came down to only playing ball, and that prompted Terry's love for Baseball. By the time she was a teen, she was an expert in the game and at 19 was scouted by Phillip K Wrigley of the Cubs and drafted for the Peoria Redwings in the All American Girls Professional Baseball League (AAGPBL).
She and other women athletes laid down a foundation for themselves and women that would follow.
Pat, however, faced many hardships and experienced the loss of so many people in her life, while growing up. She lost her oldest brother to the Second World War where he was drafted as a pilot. Her mother died when Pat was only 15, and her father remarried a woman with three children, who couldn't care less about her. A couple of years later, her father and stepmother both died in a train-crossing accident.
The three men that she had pursued a romantic relationship with, all died under different circumstances. But her life changed for the better the fateful night that she met Terry at an ice-skating rink in Nova Scotia in the winter of 1947.
The two have been practically inseparable since and are still each other's pillar of support and comfort. They've lived together for years, and the beginning of the documentary pans in on the humble life and their relationship with their family. Coming out to someone, especially family, is an act of courage. Homosexuality, although not a novel concept, is still not well-accepted in many societies, mostly for cultural or religious reasons, which is probably why the octogenarians were extremely hesitant to be candid with their family.
Terry was sick of living a lie, though, and longed to confide in her niece, yet she was afraid that she'd lose her love. However, when she did come out, Terry's family was very accepting of her sexuality and her relationship with Pat, who they have known and adored for years.
But Pat didn't have the same luck. Her only living relative, her younger brother, simply told her to not tell anyone else in the family because it could hurt them. Ever since the two got together and introduced each other to their respective families, they'd say they were mere roommates, co-habiting in Chicago because the States is an expensive place to live in. It was about time that they let go of the anchor that was holding them down, and set themselves free.
In reference to the time they met, the documentary highlights Chicago's political and social background.
Being gay in the 40s, 50s and 60s posed the greatest challenge for couples across the country. Television commercials condemning homosexuality circled their networks and the law enforcement constantly alerted youngsters that if any gay couple was discovered, they would be caught and would have hell to pay. So, the LGBT community thrived underground.
The bars in those days were suspected of being lesbian bars and were frequently raided. Women were arrested left and right if the didn't have three articles of clothing or if they dressed up in pants and impersonated men. Many people from the queer community lost their jobs, because the authorities had a list of everyone, down to the specifics which included what they did for a living. They were difficult times for the community but Terry and Pat were never part of the underground culture.
Doris Day's 'Secret Love' seamlessly eases us into the beginning of the film, with old photographic prints comprising the visuals for the opening. What many will notice is the sleek handwritten font swiping across these photos, highlighting touching words that represent love. These were taken from the remnants of the several letters that Pat had written to her lady love over the years.
Terry had collected them and each letter had a love ballad penned down by Pat. These old visuals accompanied by Pat's writing make up half of the documentary and bring with it a great sense of nostalgia for a time that most of us may have never experienced. Even in a time where they had been forced to repress their true selves, they seemed the happiest when they were with each other, and the photographic evidence only makes your cheeks hurt with how your lips turn up into a big smile.
The intimacy they share is tender and refreshing. A love like that is hard to come by, and they both attest to the fact.
Director Chris Bolan, who also happens to be Terry's grand-nephew has impeccably compiled the footage from the present and the past to make an overwhelmingly sweet yet equally hard-hitting montage that will make you believe in the power of true love. Terry and Pat had been around while he was growing up and he had witnessed their relationship in full blossom, first hand.
It seems that they met a lifetime ago but every day felt like they had only just met. They each made the life-changing decision to move to the States when they were very young, but to them, nothing mattered as long as they were together and happy. They spent many wonderful years together being unconditionally and irrevocably in love.
The film ends with a sweet clip from their wedding, which after years of debating and spending over seven decades together, they finally decided to go through. The following excerpt from EE Cumming's 'I Carry Your Heart With Me' which the minister read aloud during their nuptials, defines Terry and Pat's relationship aptly:
"Here is the deepest secret nobody knows
(Here is the root of the root and the bud of the bud
And the sky of a tree called life; which grows
Higher than the soul can hope or mind can hide)
And this is the wonder that’s keeping the stars apart
I carry your heart (I carry it in my heart)"