Synopsis: An elderly gay couple recount the early part of their lives together in the 1940’s. (Streaming on Netflix.)
A Secret Love is a documentary following a devoted elderly couple, Pat and Terry, as they reminisce about the early days of their romance and look to relocate from their Chicago, USA home into an assisted living facility. It opens with the incredibly sappy 1953 Doris Day song Secret Love about how she told a “friendly” star about her wonderful secret love and this somehow prompts her to now shout about her love to the golden daffodils. Quick aside: Doris Day starred in many 1950’s rom-coms with Rock Hudson who was a closeted gay man who often played he-man heterosexual love interests in the movies.
The prospect of listening to old people drone on about the past may sound dull, but there is footage of their much more active youth, at baseball games (ok, that’s kind of a boring sport) and at swinging parties of yore. And family drama…
Terry is originally from Alberta, Canada where she grew up on a farm. An athletic young woman, she went on to play baseball for the All American Girl Baseball League in the 1940’s when most of the men had been shipped off to war and spectators were willing to give women’s team sports a try. Being openly gay would’ve gotten a person kicked off the team, but being Canadian was allowed. The league was memorialized in the 1992 comedy A League of Their Own starring Geena Davis and Madonna as players and Tom (There’s no crying in baseball!) Hanks as their coach.
Terry says she was so naive that she didn’t really know about lesbians. One of her teammates lets her know that some of the girls have late night parties where things would go on. Terry said she couldn’t imagine what might happen, but figured she should probably barricade her door. Then she met Pat …
Pat was also Canadian and met Terry at an ice rink during baseball’s offseason when Terry was back home. They connected right away and a smitten Pat gave Terry a note saying that she had read a lot of books, but she had never read one about two women who fell in love; had she?
Homophobia was the law of the land (many lands) and Pat and Terry knew they had to keep their love secret. They both dated men. But Pat figured the universe was trying to send her a message when three of the men she dated ending up dying tragically. No, Pat did not murder them. As for Terry, she was ardently pursued by more than one suitor. No explanation as to why these Canadian men had such poor gaydar. Anyway, Terry and Pat decided they would be safer — from being found out and continually pressured by family to settle down with a man– if they moved to the states.
Jump ahead to the present day, where Pat and Terry are retired after successful careers. Terry has Parkinson’s and Pat has taken on a caregiver role. The couple are visiting Terry’s beloved niece while looking at assisted living facilities in Canada. Terry tells one administrator that she and Pat have been a couple of more than 65 years; and would they be accepted by the other residents? The administrator says ‘yes.’
But Pat doesn’t want to move back to ‘the frozen north.’ No, she wants to stay in tropical Chicago with its balmy subzero winters replete with hillocks of snow and lashing, frosted winds coming off of Lake Michigan. When they return home, crafty Pat points out the beauty of Michigan Avenue and the blooming flowers. Terry stays quiet. Back to the past…
Terry and Pat have dinner with friends, another gay couple. The two men do nothing to break down stereotypes what with their tastefully appointed apartment and gourmet-looking foods. The men talk about the danger of going to gay bars back in the day when police would make raids and then names of the “culprits” would be published in the paper, ruining lives and careers. Pat and Terry said they avoided the bar scene where women could be arrested for “impersonating” a man, ie. wearing pants and no makeup.
Footage from circa 1950 shows an authority figure angrily lecturing high school students that ” One out of three of you will be queer. You’ll be caught and your life will be a living hell.” How humane. How Christian. Not to mention the ridiculous use of police time persecuting citizens for dancing in same sex couples –Quelle horreur!- rather than, say, tracking down murderers and rapists.
The docu was shot between 2013 -2018 by Chris Bolton, the son of Terry’s niece Diana, facilitating Terry and Pat –and Diana–opening up about their feelings. Diana is exasperated to the point of tears when Pat stonewalls about moving into a facility where Terry could get necessary services. Meanwhile Terry ponders whether to honor Pat’s desire to marry.
It’s worth watching to see how they approach their waning years and enduring relationship. I liked that the filmmaker circumvented what might be some people’s cultural/personal antipathy to gay sex by swerving over to what matters the most for any couple who choose to share their lives: showing love and care for your partner day-to-day. As Terry says: I think love is love. And that’s the most important thing.”