As every life has a story, so does every love story have a life. Romance has proven to be one of the most popular genres in all art, especially film, but LGBTQ love stories have rarely found a home in the mainstream, often existing on the fringes, much like the stories they tell. And when a queer love story does make it into the mainstream, it is usually dramatic, traumatic or tragic, sometimes all at once. Queer love has been, at least narratively speaking, made out to be something that is much more melodramatic than straight love, fraught with anxiety, paranoia and deceit. What is rarely revealed is how universal love is, whether it’s straight or gay, and, when it comes right down to it, how relatable even the most extraordinary love stories can be.
In the new Netflix documentary A Secret Love, we meet Terry and Pat, a lesbian couple in their early 90s who have been together over 65 years. Meeting in 1947, they were never allowed to publicly reveal their relationship, even keeping it from their families. They followed all the rules that closeted gay people had to follow to “pass,” including having boyfriends, wearing dresses and makeup, telling everyone that they were cousins or good friends. But the whole time, they were each other’s true love, and their love story is played out for us through a treasure trove of photographs and home movies that show a lifetime of love in disguise.
Terry and Pat’s life and love story is fascinating and riveting, not just for the individual lives they led—Terry was one of the players in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, made famous in the movie A League of Their Own—but for their life together, having navigated society’s attempts to shame them to endure as a beautiful, devoted and loving couple. You don’t see this too often in the media. A happy old couple doesn’t make for a crackling narrative—tears and drama are what sell—but Pat and Terry are entertaining and riveting nonetheless, as we can’t help but see ourselves, hoping for that kind of tenderness and caring when we’re that age.
But the documentary doesn’t focus on Terry and Pat’s life in the past as much as it delves into their challenges in the present day, confronting the realities of old age and the need to make decisions about the future. There is a clear perspective here, and it’s that of Terry’s family, who feel the need to step in and force the couple to accept their help. Although Terry had always been very close with her nieces and nephews, especially her niece Diana, she never came out to anyone until recently. It was this coming out that inspired Terry’s great-nephew, Chris Bolan, to make this documentary about Pat and Terry’s life. It’s important to know that because the film we get is not only a very intimate and personal one, one that could most likely only have been made by a close friend or family member, but it also means we, the audience, get a very skewed perspective on Pat and Terry’s life and relationship. It’s understandable, but the result feels inorganic. You can’t help but feel there is so much missing.
Family is the number one construct for emotional support in most people’s lives, but in the lives of gay people, who are often ostracized and rejected by their biological families, the notion of “family by choice,” i.e. friends, is a familiar one. The problem with this structure, however, is the lack of generational support. Gay people face the same dilemma as anyone else without children—who will take care of them when they’re old. A Secret Love is a truly compelling look at the hard truths that come with aging. Two feisty, strong, smart and independent women, who have relied on nobody but themselves their whole lives, now must trust others to look out for them—and to honor their relationship. I truly have never seen this in a film before and it’s staggeringly emotional to watch.
But, again, there still was something missing. In all those photographs and videos that we see, I longed to hear more of the stories behind them. The filmmakers could have turned the camera a little more off themselves and aimed it more on these two women whose lives I would’ve loved to have learned more about. The hook of the piece is the fact that Terry played professional baseball in a famous league, but Pat’s story is never fully told. We learn in passing of all the tragedy she’s endured, and we see that she is far more aloof and resistant to change than Terry is—there’s got to be a story there.
But A Secret Love still manages to tug at every single heartstring. Pat and Terry had a legitimate love story, one for the ages, and it’s one we all should experience, in all its tenderness and fortitude.
A Secret Love premieres April 29 exclusively on Netflix.