Here’s my review of A Secret Love, a new Netflix documentary about the seven-decade relationship, most of which was spent in the closet, between Terry Donahue and Pat Henschel: I started crying less than three minutes in and I didn’t stop crying until ten minutes after it ended. A Secret Love is a tender, heartfelt portrait of the life shared by Terry and Pat, much of which they had to keep secret from even their families for fear of ostracism or worse. Directed by Chris Bolan, Terry’s great-nephew, A Secret Love traces Terry and Pat’s relationship, which began in the post-war era, even as present-day Terry and Pat struggle with the decision of whether or not to relocate to a care home as Terry’s Parkinson’s worsens. This is a beautiful documentary, at once intensely personal and historically impactful. Bolan doesn’t shy from the cracks within his own family, as some family members struggle with the late-in-life revelation that Aunt Pat and Aunt Terry are not, in fact, friends, they are partners, and have been together for over 60 years.
At the same time, Bolan also contextualizes Terry and Pat’s relationship within the historical context of the twentieth century. They met in Moose Jaw, Canada in the late 1940s, when Terry played professional baseball for the Peoria Redwings in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League and Pat played hockey. (As a catcher, Terry is basically the real-life Dottie Hinson.) A Secret Love is full of details about queer life in the mid-20th century: Terry and Pat avoided the Chicago queer nightlife for fear of police raids and being doxed in the papers and losing their jobs—or worse—and tore their signatures from their love letters lest they be found and the authors discovered. But A Secret Love is also about old age and the indignity of aging, and the impossible choices that must be made when bodies begin to fail before minds do.
I had both major experiences with my grandmothers; my Nana experienced a long, slow slide into oblivion courtesy Alzheimer’s, one of the wickedest afflictions known to man. My granny, on the other hand, was razor-sharp until the day she died, but that was its own special hell, because unlike Nana, Granny knew all the ways her body was failing her, and it was torturous to watch her struggle to maintain independence even as it became clear she could not live on her own. Old age was an insult to Granny, who held her family and her ranch together for decades on her own, only to find that one day she couldn’t make tea without help. Much of A Secret Love is preoccupied with the loss of independence facing Terry and Pat—Terry needs specialized care, but Pat is reluctant to resign them to an assisted living facility. If you have elderly relatives, this is a debate with which you are probably intimately familiar.
But there is an extra dimension for Terry and Pat, who aren’t just contending with the loss of independence, but also the loss of privacy and risk of rejection inherent in being out in a community, something they’ve been taught to fear by a lifetime of oppression and persecution. They lived so much of their lives in a private bubble, protecting their relationship and themselves out of necessity, the threat of social retribution and physical harm very real for lesbians in the 1940s, 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s, even in a liberal city like Chicago. In that way, Terry and Pat have never really been safe, with public acceptance of the LGBTQ community only coming late in their lives. Pat’s hesitance to join an assisted living community is understandable—she wants the best for Terry, but she’s also fiercely protective of their relationship, because she has always had to be.
This makes the ending all the more poignant, as Terry and Pat finally, legally get married, surrounded by family and friends, some of whom also survived the closeted past with Terry and Pat. This is as sweet and moving a wedding scene as you will find in any film, and it demonstrates why the right to get legally married matters so much, what it means for two people—any two people—to publicly and freely admit their love and devotion to one another. Maybe marriage isn’t for everyone but it should be available to anyone, and Terry and Pat finally get to celebrate their love and acknowledge one another as wives. A Secret Love is the story of pioneering female athletes and the history of queer acceptance in North America, but mostly it’s the story of Terry and Pat, who loved each other so long and so well that their love literally transcended the oppression of one century to find liberation in another.