A Secret Love: A 65-year Lesbian Love Story

Thomas Barnes , Staff

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For many of us, the COVID-19 quarantine has provided an unexpected opportunity to delve deep into the catalogs of our favorite streaming services. For me, this has meant discovering numerous cinematic gems that have led me streaming well past 2:00am. Among the herd on my week’s “watch list” was Netflix’s newly released documentary A Secret Love which features the story of an elderly lesbian couple revealing their relationship to their loved ones and preparing to get married. What is most compelling about this emotional documentary is its ability to transcend the stigmas typically attached to LGBTQIA+ relationships, and capture mutual, unconditional love in its most wholesome form.  A Secret Love is truly a film all audiences can and will enjoy. 

A Secret Love tells the story of Terry Donahue and Pat Henschel, a “65-and-a-half” year strong lesbian couple who has only recently disclosed their relationship to their loved ones and are preparing for their wedding. The documentary oscillates between past and present as the couple frequently reminisces about their youth and the development of their relationship to distract themselves from the stress and fear associated with their day-to-day life. Terry’s Parkinson’s disease is making her increasingly more debilitated, and the couple is struggling to come to terms with the reality of moving into an assisted-living facility. Often accompanied by Terry’s niece Diane, the couple sifts through hundreds of old photos, letters, and videos of themselves from their younger years while telling anecdotes from the story of their relationship. Prior to viewing the documentary, I expected tales about how difficult a lesbian relationship was in the ’40s-’50s, but Terry and Pat acknowledge the difficult pressures while mainly focusing on the happiness and pride they had in simply being together even if forced into privacy. 

Terry was a Canadian-born professional softball player recruited by Phillip B. Wrigley to play on the Peoria Redwings, an All-American Girls Professional Baseball team formed during World War II. Thinking America would be a more accepting society for LGBT relationships, Terry’s naive optimism was shattered by the hardline-homophobic policies of the Chicago area. However, the bar raids, newspaper shamings, and imprisonment common in Chicago and across the country did not stop Terry from continuing to seek a partner. Meeting Pat while out dancing at a bar one night, Terry quickly fell in love with the intelligent and beautiful woman; their secret love had begun. 

Gaining superlative reviews from popular media sites (100% on Rotten Tomatoes and 8.3/10 on IMDb), A Secret Love sucks you into the innocent, wholesome, and captivating nature of Terry and Pat’s interdependent relationship. The documentary includes endearing scenes of Terry passing out signed (archaic) baseball cards from her time on the Peoria Redwings to admiring fans, of Pat reading out poetic letters she wrote to Terry when they first met, of Terry repping her RBG-esque physical therapy workouts, and of the two ladies formally sealing the deal with marriage in their almost century-long relationship. The movie is packed with adorable, emotional scenes prompting constant gushing and tear-wiping over the two old ladies. 

The true allure of this film is the documentary’s success at normalizing an LGBTQIA+ relationship. One of the most dramatic ways this is done is by the synthesis of the charm and admiration we traditionally hold for heterosexual elderly couples to Terry and Pat’s homosexual relationship. Unlike other LGBTQIA+ documentaries, the focus of A Secret Love is not centered around Pat and Terry’s gayness, but it highlights and exhibits the infinite amount of unconditional love each woman possesses for the other. This display of total affection is something that every audience member, regardless of sexual orientation, can relate to whether it be something they also experience or something an audience member strives to obtain. The forefront of the couple’s love over their lesbian-identity may be due to their experience concealing their relationship for over 60 years, but I believe it is the documentary’s intent to showcase an authentic, experienced and genuine love between two people regardless of their identities. Terry and Pat are not ashamed, they are not broken, they are not uncomfortable with themselves, and they are not uncomfortable with others as traditional media tends to portray gay people and same-sex couples. A Secret Love is a rare and refreshing portrayal of a healthy, happy, and successful same-sex relationship that will make any romantic jealous. 

Netflix has been quite progressive and intent on normalizing the LGBTQIA+ through their representation of LGBTQIA+ people in many of its original productions and catalog content. Netflix recently released another LGBTQIA+ documentary — Circus of Books — that tells the story of the controversial gay-porn store run by a straight Jewish couple, and it just released the new film The Half of It whose main character is a teenage-girl discovering she may be gay. Netflix is committed to representing queer stories. 

However, to successfully normalize the LGBTQIA+ community, it must be a two-way street between fiction and non-fiction media portrayal, and a two-way street between LGBTQIA+ people and non-LGBTQIA+ people. This documentary serves both of these purposes by presenting an authentic story told by Terry and Pat themselves, and by allowing all audiences to resonate with the powerful presentation of love and affection. A Secret Love intends to tell the story of what it was like to be lesbian couple generations ago to give LGBTQIA+ youth something to look forward to today.

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