A Secret Love drops into the lives of Terry Donahue and Pat Henschel, both women in their eighties and looking to move out of their house and into assisted living. The documentary, directed by the couple’s grand-nephew, Chris Bolan, then dives into the 70 year long history the two women have shared together.
Over those 70 years the couple has spent the majority of it hiding their relationship. To their nieces and nephews, they had always been Aunt Terry and Aunt Pat and they never thought to question the half-hearted excuses the couple would give to explain their relationship and living situation. The documentary picks up after the couple has come out to their family before diving into Terry and Pat’s love story from when they first met in the late 40s.
Both women were originally from Canada but found themselves living in Chicago where Terry had played baseball for the All-American Women’s Baseball League. This was the same league that would inspire the movie A League of Their Own. Terry describes how they had to play ball in dresses and how one of her teammates had managed to steal 201 bases in one year, something no man had done.
The natural banter between the two women, of which the best screenwriters can only be envious of, brings the film to another level. But within that banter lies the struggles these women have faced. The film does a brilliant job of weaving together both mainstream and LGBTQ+ history with family, love, life, and aging. With heavyhearted anecdotes about the fear of raids, imprisonment, and deportation back to Canada that kept them from bars and into a life of hiding. The film does a great job of balancing both the fear that is found throughout their life with the joy that they found. Old photos and footage interspersed throughout the film show the two smiling and laughing. This joy is defiance in the face of a world that told the couple their love was unnatural.
This is what I believe the real success of the film to be. Where it is common to see the struggle of LGBT+ lives on the screen, it is less common to see the triumph. While struggle certainly has its part in their love story this film is optimistic as it shows Terry and Pat’s long, full life together. As Terry says near the end of the film, “No regrets. I’d do it all over again”.
It’s a beautiful thing to watch the joy that the two women have found with one another, now on screen, a secret no longer.