'A Secret Love': A Tender Proclamation in the Face of Queer Erasure [Review]
Looking at Terry Donahue and Pat Henschel’s life at home, one may only see old friends helping each other around. If you look closely, their love is hidden in plain sight – in the way Pat helps Terry put on her jacket, or the adoration in Terry’s eyes when she smiles at Pat. Netflix’s new documentary brings an intimate look at two women’s story of keeping their love unknown for nearly 65 years. Produced by Ryan Murphy, A Secret Love is a tender proclamation of LGBT history as an inseparable part of the human story.
The documentary opens with present-day Pat and Terry in their eighties and still undergoing major life changes, such as moving from their Illinois home and coping with Terry’s early-onset Parkinson’s disease. However, these two women have undergone nearly seven decades of obstacles that they’ve overcome together. The documentary details the countless stories, struggles, and joys of Terry and Pat as individuals, and more so as an inextricable unit. Director Chris Bolan is the great nephew of Terry, giving this feature a personal touch and a clear mission to right the wrongs of queer erasure in his own family. While Terry and Pat’s storied love is an incredible testament to courage in the face of injustice, it is only one of thousands of closeted queer stories that have not yet been told.
Heavily comprised of grainy home videos of the two in their youth going to the beach together, it is hard not to feel nostalgia-laden, but this romanticizing is starkly contrasted with newspaper headlines and actual footage of the socially politicized 1940s and 50s. Even before the Civil Rights Movement, being queer came with its own witch hunt, where being outed meant losing your job, being disowned by your family, and even imprisonment. The doc briefly delves into the underground queer bar scene of the 1940s, one that Terry and Pat never wanted to risk their love or freedom for, being Canadian immigrants. Footage of bar raids brings the danger to the forefront, but Terry and Pat kept their tender love far away, in a world unto themselves.
The doc continually vacillates back to the present to show that obstacles and rule-breaking is not over. Terry only came out to her family three years before the documentary was shot. Before that, the two hid their truth under the moniker “Auntie Terry and Auntie Pat,” two best friends who lived together for financial stability. Bolan balances shedding light on the personal sacrifices each had to make to keep their love hidden, and the enduring nature of their love that seems ineffably natural and tacitly communicated to one another.
A Secret Love displays these women as pioneers in all aspects of their lives, especially devoting some time to Terry being a visible part of history in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League. Notably seen in pop culture in the 1992 film A League of Their Own, starring Tom Hanks and Geena Davis, the All-American league began as a novelty act while the country’s men were fighting in World War II, but soon became a veritable source of female athletes. Terry’s anecdotes of being recruited at age seventeen and having to wear a skirt as a uniform refracts this piece of history through a personal lens, making it even more palpable and politically minded.
Bolan weaves together an honest portrayal that reserves itself from any flashiness, in order to let the profundity of their love – a love that defies time and convention – elevate itself. Seeing the breadth of these women’s lives laid out from idyllic childhoods on farms to first kisses in sandstorms, through unthinkable loss and eventually marriage, is a beautifully human experience. Bolan paints an innately emotional picture of love as Pat devotedly tends to an ailing Terry, who’s often seen wearing a “There’s no crying in baseball” T-shirt. What Bolan also manages to do is present Pat and Terry’s love as something astoundingly universal and at the same time revealing a unique struggle in the LGBT community, as told by the trailblazers and lovers themselves.