Before I came out, I was afraid my family would not accept me. There are other homosexual people in my family but I still had that fear. That fear every gay person has when they have to come out and let the world in on our little secret. For years, I dealt with all those feelings on my own, and a lot of sadness and anger kept me awake at night. It was seven years of fear and uncertainty, I cannot imagine having to keep that secret for any longer. So when I found out about two women who had to keep themselves and their love a secret for sixty-five and a half years, I was shocked and sad. But at the same time, I admired their strength.
On April 24th, I saw a trailer for a new Netflix documentary. A Secret Love tells the story of Terry Donahue and Pat Henschel, two women who kept their relationship a secret from their families for over six decades. In the documentary, we see both women in their older age after having shared their secret with Donahue’s family. We follow them as they struggle with Terry’s illness, selling their house, moving to a senior living community, and Pat’s difficulty to accept help after so many years of doing everything on their own. Through those moments, we see the definition of true unconditional love.
When you are part of the LGBTQ+ Community, you are well-aware of the struggles you – or others like you – will face on a daily basis. You know some of us are rejected by our families and thrown out of home. You see others being bullied and physically abused. You mourn those killed for who they loved. Those are struggles that only members of this beautiful community could grasp. However, when I saw the trailer of A Secret Love, I became very excited for two reasons. Number one, it looked like – and ended up being – a beautiful love story that would show LGBTQ+ people that they are worthy, and that their love is valid. Number two, I realized the documentary would show other people a few of the struggles we have to face in our lifetime.
For those reasons, I decided to share the trailer on my Facebook wall with this caption: “I am 100% ready to cry like never before. It is love like this one that makes the world a little kinder and allows us to be ourselves. Homophobia hurts while love heals all wounds.” After posting it, my grandmother and step-grandmother commented that they would watch it. Thirteen year old me would have been so happy to read those comments. Twenty-four year old me was so happy to read those comments. It is little things like those words, “we will watch it,” that make us feel loved and accepted.
It was then that I realized this documentary would become a bridge between generations. By letting us in on Terry Donahue and Pat Henschel’s lives, they were showing the world an old school love. What does this mean? It means these women have the kind of love, the kind of lives, our grandparents or great-grandparents have. They were falling in love and starting their lives at the same time. Therefore, people like my grandma and step-grandma are prone to understand a love story similar to their own better. It is always easier for people to understand something that they can somehow relate to.
On April 29th, A Secret Love premiered and that same day my grandmother sent me a text asking for the title of the movie so she could watch it. We promised each other that the next day we would discuss it and share our opinions. That same night, she texted me saying: “I really liked it! A really beautiful love story. I got emotional and I learned to value their way of defending happiness. It was a pleasure to watch!” Those words truly brought tears to my eyes and made me feel understood. Here was my grandma seeing the struggles of a love like mine and accepting that, no matter what, love is love. But above all, she learned what being a member of the LGBTQ+ Community entitles.
A few days later, my step-grandma texted me: “I just finished A Secret Love. Super emotional…what hardships they must have faced…beautiful love!” And I understood that my theory was right. This documentary was working as a bridge between an older generation and their younger LGBTQ+ family members. It was allowing them to see how at the time they were happily in love, others were secretly in love. It was showing them that homosexual couples can have love stories with the same romantic gestures as theirs. It was letting us feel love and acceptance from the people we need it from the most.
What others may not understand is that no matter how old you are or even how long ago you came out, hearing words of acceptance from those we love, will always mean the world to us. It took Terry and Pat years to come out to their families and in the meantime they found their chosen family. They had friends who were like them and shared their lives with them. Nevertheless, both women felt the need to share their secret with their blood relatives. Although Henschel’s brother rejected her, Donahue’s family accepted them, organized their wedding, and took care of them.
This documentary has allowed me to see a kinder world. A world in which two lesbians found each other, loved each other, and took care of each other until the end. A world in which Terry’s family is taking care of Pat even after their aunt’s death. A world in which my grandma and step-grandma have more knowledge on LGBTQ+ struggles and can appreciate a lesbian love story. A world in which we can feel a little bit more accepted. Our fight is not over and we still have to become more accepted, more equal, and more respected. But it is because of a production like A Secret Love that we can create bridges to connect with one another. Because, just like Terry said, “love is love, and that’s the most important thing.”