Terry Mutchler, executive director of Pennsylvania's Office of Open Records, has spent the last decade working to increase transparency in government - a paradoxical position for a woman who spent the most formative years of her life hiding deep, dark secrets.

As a young journalist in Illinois, Mutchler fell in love with a state senator. It was a clear ethics breach, but the larger problem was that they were both women at a time when homosexuality was far less accepted.

They moved in together, began working together, and considered themselves married - all while going to extraordinary lengths to hide their relationship.

When the senator died of breast cancer in 1998, Mutchler was relegated to the 15th row at her funeral and locked out of the home the two had bought, and built, together.

It took Mutchler nearly 20 years - many of them fraught with depression, self-blame, and bitter family feuds - to come to grips with her experience. In late October, months after Pennsylvania became the latest in a wave of states to legalize same-sex marriage, Mutchler released her story in a book, Under This Beautiful Dome: A Senator, a Journalist, and the Politics of Gay Love in America.

Looking back, she said, there are certainly things she would have done differently.

"I would never have lived one day in a lie," Mutchler said in an interview late last month. "I would have made sure, 100 percent, that a professional handled that will. And I would have taken a different stand."

Star-crossed lovers

At 27, Mutchler was the Associated Press bureau chief in the Illinois statehouse. She'd been on the job only a month when she saw Sen. Penny Severns, 41, a rising star in the Democratic Party who mentored a young Barack Obama and later ran on the nation's first all-female gubernatorial ticket.

"I just fell in love," Mutchler writes in the book.

When they spent the night together, Mutchler would park her car two miles from Severns' home so no one would see it on the senator's street. When they bought a house together in Decatur, Mutchler insisted it be in only Severns' name.

"The deed will be public record," she told Severns. "We can figure out the legal end of this later."

Two years into their relationship, Mutchler left journalism to become Severns' press secretary - a plausible, if belated, explanation for why the two were inseparable.

Yet, Mutchler writes, she had still not acknowledged to herself that she was a lesbian. She blames the denial - and her tolerance for secrecy - on her upbringing in a religious but turbulent family in the Poconos.

From her earliest years, Mutchler honed a combination of secrecy, lies, and political spin to divert attention from her family of alcoholics, and her own sexual abuse by a male relative when she was a child.

But in all the machinations to hide her relationship with Severns, Mutchler said, they weren't as successful as they thought.

"In the best sense of the word, I think people were willing to look away," she said last month. "And it was that very looking away that couldn't save me when I was drowning."

When Severns died, Mutchler was struggling through her third year of law school, spiraling into alcoholism and depression. She could not properly grieve for a spouse no one knew existed. And she was battling with Severns' family over the house, furniture, art, and other items the couple had acquired over five years together.

The family who had welcomed Mutchler before Severns' death and to whom Severns had entrusted her will - another public document forsaken in the name of secrecy - changed the locks on the Decatur house. At the funeral, they shook hands with dignitaries who had every day seen Mutchler at Severns' side - while Mutchler stood in a side parking lot, being comforted by the few who seemed to know she had lost much more than a boss.

"The change was too quick. That was another grief and shock," she said. "I felt like I lost that whole family in one fell swoop."

Eventually, Mutchler began to tell select friends and counselors about Severns and started on a path toward healing. But 20 years and 308 pages later, she said, some of the wounds are still raw.

The chapters dealing with Severns' death - unflinching in their detail and unvarnished in their observations - are so fraught Mutchler cannot reread them.

"Even if you take me out of a partnership status," she said, choosing her words slowly, "the amount of love and care that I provided to Penny at the end of her life alone should have been enough for the most kind treatment. And instead, I experienced the most cruel treatment."

Cautionary tale

At its heart, Mutchler writes, Under This Beautiful Dome "will always be a love story" - one that would have played out differently if it were set in a different time.

In person, however, she clarifies that "there's a difference between privacy and secrecy. While I believe that we would not have been secret in this day and age . . . I think we would've always been private in some way."

Since Severns' death, Mutchler has returned to public life, found love again, and accepted the role of gay-rights advocate when she has felt compelled to do so.

She lives in Montgomery County with a poet she met at a writing workshop a decade ago.

In November 2013, she had a front-row seat on the Illinois House floor as Rep. Ann Williams recounted the story of love and loss that had begun in that very chamber.

For Williams, a close friend of Mutchler's, it was both a compelling example of why her fellow legislators should legalize same-sex marriage, and a chance to undo one of the many tragic elements of Mutchler and Severns' story.

"The fact that their relationship had never been revealed on the record in the Illinois Legislature," Williams said, referring to the 1998 Senate resolution that memorialized Severns' life but that recorded her as "single." "That was something I felt I could rectify."

The marriage bill passed, and after the Illinois governor signed it into law, the pen was placed in Mutchler's hand.

At the time, Pennsylvania's same-sex marriage ban was being challenged in the courts. Gov. Corbett was defending the law, and he drew a public rebuke from Mutchler when he compared same-sex marriage to the marriage of a brother and sister.

"I find it sad that a governor with a team of intelligent, thoughtful staff around him, some of whom are gay has such a basic misunderstanding, and, more distressing, an overt meanness about any issue," Mutchler said in a speech last fall.

Corbett apologized for the remark, and months later, he declined to appeal a federal judge's ruling that struck down Pennsylvania's same-sex marriage ban.

Mutchler's six-year term as the state's open records director expired in April. After Corbett lost his reelection bid on Tuesday, his staff said they would leave the post open for Tom Wolf to fill in January.

Mutchler is clear on this point: She wants to keep the job.

"If you put somebody in who doesn't feel strongly about it, you are going to go backward just by the sheer force of having to stand," she said, swirling the last drops of her iced tea at a cafe in Mount Airy. "This is enemy territory. There's no other way to describe it, regardless of whether you're a Democrat or a Republican."

After the torment of watching her partner die and losing all physical evidence of the life they'd built together, Mutchler said, the prospect of hostile politics doesn't scare her.

"It's why I'm able to stand up to the highest levels of government," she said. "I'm certainly not tempting fate, but I'd like to believe that what I went through is the worst I will ever go through."

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