A Secret Love Review: 65 Years of Lesbian Romance

A Secret Love tells the story of Terry Donahue and Pat Henschel. They have been together for 65 and a half years, and are still very much in love. But now both women are in their 80s. Illness and disability are making it increasingly difficult to stay in their home of more than two decades. Netflix’s documentary follows Terry and Pat through the final chapters in their romance.

When we first meet the couple, they are on the phone with Terry’s doctor. Like many a spouse, Pat is supporting Terry by asking the right questions and taking note of the important details. But Pat is posing as Terry’s cousin. This pretense – and the ongoing necessity of it – gives the audience our first real insight into the challenges these women have faced to be together.

When she was 19, Terry was discovered by a talent scout. This led to a glittering baseball career as a catcher for the Peoria Redwings. In the aftermath of WWII, the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League became hugely popular. Its success was immortalized in the cult classic film A League of Their Own. Terry glows as she talks about playing baseball. “They wanted us to look like ladies and play ball like men, so that’s what we did.”

It was during her baseball career that Terry first met Pat. Love quickly blossomed. Though friends warned Terry that female athletes were often lesbians, she never let on that she was one. Blending in was how they stayed safe. Both Terry and Pat kept up courtships with young men for the sake of appearances. But when Pat was being pressured to marry a local farmer’s son, they made the decision to start a new life together in Chicago. Unlike rural Canada, city life offered Terry and Pat the security of being anonymous. They didn’t know anybody else, and were just happy to have each other.

Stories of Terry and Pat’s young life are brought to life by old family photos and grainy, impossibly glamorous films shot decades before taking snapshots of your own life became standard. Yet Terry and Pat’s commitment to documentation is a gift to viewers. Countless lesbian lives have been erased from history with the destruction of diaries, love letters, and photographs. Terry and Pat’s romance is beautiful in its own right. But having that love preserved in A Secret Love, a documentary that will be viewed by millions, feels like a victory for all lesbian kind.

For most of Terry and Pat’s relationship, a documentary casting lesbian love in a sympathetic light would have been unthinkable. Out lesbians were made into pariahs. Although Terry and Pat knew of lesbian bars, being part of those community spaces felt like too big a risk. If you were caught in a lesbian bar, the punishment didn’t stop with the law. Old Man Daley – the homophobic Mayor of Chicago – would have your name and job publicly printed. This led to lesbians and gays losing everything from jobs to custody of their children. If Terry and Pat had been found in a lesbian bar, they would have been forcibly deported.

Yet Terry and Pat found other same-sex couples. Pouring over the couple’s photo albums, Terry’s niece Diana remarks that the pictures are “all full of women and gay men.” Diana is more like a daughter to Terry. Despite this closeness, Terry only felt able to come out to her three years ago. For all the progress we have made during the decades of Terry and Pat’s relationship, coming out remains a terrifying process. Terry is near tears as she tells the camera how afraid she was of losing Diana’s love.

A Secret Love explores family dynamics with an honesty that is sometimes searing. As Diana pushes them to move into a retirement community where her aunt can get the additional support she needs, fault lines in these relationships are exposed.

Terry has a tight-knit network of nieces and nephews, all of whom adore her. Pat has only Terry. Although Terry’s family are accepting, calling them both ‘the aunties’, Pat wonders whether they only put up with her for Terry’s sake. Diana speculates that Pat doesn’t want to move back to Edmonton because she’d have to share Terry with her family.

For all the ups and downs of A Secret Love (don’t watch it without a box of tissues), this is a lesbian story with a happy ending. The old resentments are aired and resolved. Terry and Pat move to sheltered accommodation that begins to feel like home, with their furniture and mementos of a life together. It is there they decide to tie the knot, after almost seven decades in love. And – for the first time – Terry and Pat’s family and community are brought together.

Although acceptance of same-sex relationships is becoming more widespread, it is still rare to see the lives of older lesbians treated with worth and dignity by the mainstream media. The bravery of Terry and Pat is rightly recognized. As is the fact that women like them are pioneers. Neither woman grew up with positive lesbian role models to emulate. But both Terry and Pat will serve as role models to generations of lesbians who will watch A Secret Love and feel inspired by the example they set.

A Secret Love is now streaming on Netflix.