When I first saw the trailer for Ryan Murphy’s A Secret Love, I was moved to tears. Needless to say, my expectations were more than met while watching this documentary. Ryan Murphy has been associated with numerous iconic (if not problematic at times) LGBTQ inclusive television and film in Hollywood, such as Pose, Glee, American Horror Story, American Crime Story, The Normal Heart (2014) and many more. The documentary has been directed by Chris Bolan, and edited by Bernadine Colish, and is currently available to watch on Netflix. Inspired from Doris Day’s song “Secret Love”, the film begins with our protagonists Terry Donahue and Pat Henschel deciding to move houses, and is peppered throughout with the couple’s life through the years via archival home video tapes and family photographs.
Terry was 22 years of age when she first met the 18 year old Pat on a skating rink, way back in the 40s. They immediately connected in a time that was not open at all to the idea of LGBTQ people as legitimate members of society. In a poignant narration that justifies the need for queer representation, Pat tells that she confessed her love to Terry in a note where she stated ”I am a reader, and I have read many stories, but none where a woman loved another woman.” It is important to note that Pat wrote many such letters to Terry, with all the bottoms torn off so that nobody would find out that they were a couple. Their friends and family hail the duo as unacknowledged pioneers in a time where being gay, being different was not popular. In the 40s, gay and lesbian underground bars were often raided by police, with people being thrown into police vans for mere clothing markers, such as suspected gay men owning more than 3 pieces of woman’s clothing, or women wearing men’s front zipper pants. In what used to be a literal witch hunt, gay people were openly terrorised and ostracised by society, police, with even their names and jobs being published in the paper. This would lead to many queer folk losing their jobs, their homes, custody of their children, eventually causing many to end their lives as well.
Pat and Terry were both Canadian immigrants who had a green card, and so did not attend any of these parties for the fear of going back to Canada and losing each other. In doing so, they acknowledge the time they lost out in spending some quality down time with their community, who would probably have understood them more than anyone else at the time. But at the same time, they also took advantage of their invisibility as closeted lesbian women; they eloped to the States, convinced that they were the only two of their kind and built a life together. When A Secret Love began filming, Pat and Terry had spent 65 and a half years together loving each other and had only disclosed this fact to their family three years prior. As their families come to know about Pat and Terry and the journey they have made together, so do we as viewers. What follows is a story that is guaranteed to melt your heart, because Pat and Terry manage to have a transcendental love story that takes place across America and Canada, through World Wars, travelling around the world, and kissing each other in sandstorms when nobody could look at them.
An interesting cultural point of queer intersection in the film is Terry Donahue’s influence on the queer cult classic, A League of Their Own (1992), which is based on the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (AAGPBL). Terry played as a catcher and utility player in women’s baseball, and spent four years with the Peoria Redwings. The 1992 film is a lesbian cult classic, despite not having any canonical ones in it. Women’s league baseball at the time was operating in multiple paradoxes – it was subversive in the way that women were playing a contact team sport previously deemed “masculine”, but their uniforms had skirts instead of pants — not great for sliding, but deemed appropriately feminine by league owner Philip K. Wrigley. All of this was chronicled in A League of Their Own. But there was one thing the movie left out: the reason for these requirements, which was that the bigwigs behind this sports movement did not want their players to be perceived as lesbians, which was in fact the case with many of them, Terry included. It was during her league days that Terry fell in love with Pat, and the rest is history.
As queer millennials we always believe in the here and now, and hence, coming out is a phenomenon our generation usually associates with coming of age. But this may not hold necessarily true for Terry, who at around 84 years of age, was afraid to tell her niece Diane that she was gay and had been in a relationship with her “Aunt” Pat for over sixty five and a half years. Not wanting to “lose her love”, the fear remains the same, but the stakes are heightened because of the loneliness that can come at the age when you need your loved ones the most. The hints of Terry and Pat being in a Boston Marriage at the time seems to be the most plausible reason the family had all through these years, as per Terry’s other niece, Tammy Donahue. They both agree that Tammy’s grandmother and Terry’s mother would have disowned them if she knew. A Secret Love also speaks of the unlikeliest of allies we find in familial spaces: Terry’s father seemed to have a good idea of their relationship, approving of Pat, and even told Terry that he would rather see her happy this way than be with a man.
We see a stoic Pat caring for all of Terry’s day to day needs as the latter’s Parkinson’s Disease worsens. Pat has clearly only grown more in love with Terry through all these years. As she tucks a frail, trembling Terry into bed, she tells us, her voice breaking: “She means everything to me.” Family plays a pivotal role in the current timeline of A Secret Love as well. It is through the efforts of Diane and the rest of her cousins, that Pat and Terry agree to shift to a senior living centre in Canada. In the face of impending death, family and love is what matters the most. Terry and Pat are each other’s family. While Terry’s blood family thinks that Pat has monopolised control and time over Terry, we see Pat’s side of the story as well. Pat comes from a family that suffered many losses early on, she lost almost all of her five brothers, her mother, and eventually saw it drive headfirst into dysfunction. She found love, acceptance and care in Terry’s family, as well as the friends that they made within their community.
The film ends with Pat and Terry finding much needed comfort in Edmonton, Canada amidst Terry’s surviving family, and getting married in 2015, the same year gay marriage was legalized in the States. The nuptials take place on Terry’s birthday, in an extremely beautiful and emotional climax. However, Terry passed away four years later, on March 14, 2019, after having shared 72 wondrous beautiful years together with the love of her life, Pat. I found myself crying through various points in A Secret Love, a little envious of the love that Pat and Terry shared, but mostly awestruck and humbled by the hope that two very ordinary women could find pure love and joy in each other and make it last, from the moment they first set eyes upon each other, till death did them part.