Several years ago, filmmaker Chris Bolan and his wife paid a visit to their two great aunts, Terry Donahue and Pat Henschel. This visit was a little different to usual because Terry and Pat had something to tell them. The family had long believed Terry and Pat were just lifelong friends and roommates, but in reality, they are gay and had kept their love secret for seven decades.
“My wife and I said ‘thank you so much for telling us, we love you this won’t change anything’. Then the flood gates opened up… They turned into these little giddy school girls, stories starting flooding out of them dating back to the 1940s. I was just blown away. I had never heard stories of women of that generation before talking openly about this love they’d kept secret for seven decades.” That was the moment Chris knew he had to make a film about the love between them.
Though there was a little trepidation, having just come out to their family for the first time, decades on from the beginning of their romance, Terry and Pat trusted Chris to direct their story.
“They couldn’t understand why anyone would want to make a movie about the two of them. But they said, if you believe in it and you want to do it, we trust you,” Chris said.
Terry and Pat met in the 1940s in America, fell in love and built a life together. What makes the story even more enthralling is Terry’s major role in North American sports history – her involvement in the 1946 All-American Girls Baseball League, also known as the A League of Their Own league.
To tell their lifelong love story in the form of a Netflix documentary, Chris filmed his aunts’ lives for nearly six years and A Secret Love was born. And he’s never been more sure about any project he’s worked on before.
At its core, A Secret Love is a love story. But it also sheds light on how difficult life was for LGBT+ folk falling in love in the 1940s and why Terry and Pat remained closeted for so long. The homophobia was rampant. The Mayor at the time would raid bars and the newspapers in Chicago would print the names of those found out to be gay. Some of those people lost their jobs, their families and were ousted from society or committed suicide. It was difficult and dangerous to be gay – but Terry and Pat’s love survived through it all.
The reaction to the film has been seismic and global. For Producer Brendan Mason, the responses from around the world have been “overwhelming”.
“Immediately after the film dropped, I went on Twitter and all of these people had already watched the film after only three hours of it being on the site. They were posting reactions of how moved they were,” he said.
“One of the things we always said to Pat and Terry was that if we could get this film in front of one person who’s a girl on a farm in Cork or in Missouri and have it affect them and have them see an aspirational relationship that makes them think: ‘I’m gonna be ok’, then we did our job. And that’s the kind of validation we’ve gotten so far.”
“Pat is having a blast getting bouquets of flowers from Australia and letters from all over the world. People are writing her poetry because of those beautiful poems she wrote for Terry. She’s beside herself and so pleased that their story is resonating,” Brendan added.
The makers of the film are now working on a new documentary seeking to elevate similar voices.
A Secret Love is now available to watch on Netflix UK and Ireland.
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