The couple met in 1947, at a hockey rink in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan. Terry Donahue had recently moved to the U.S. to play baseball — in a skirt — for the now-famed All-American Girls Professional Baseball League. Pat Henschel was a sinewy farm kid from a turbulent home. They fell in love, their swoony adoration immortalized in clandestine letters to one another with the signatures torn from the bottom of the pages so no one could later identify the authors. Their passion had to remain hidden from their families: They were both women.
With his triumphant Netflix documentary A Secret Love, director Chris Bolan not only chronicles the 62 wonderful and heartbreaking years the pair lived as spouses while remaining closeted, but also centers their experience within queer North American history, contextualizing their choice to hide their love from everyone but close friends in the LGBTQ community.
To the shock of their families, sweet Terry and prickly Pat finally came out in 2009 after living together in Chicago for more than six decades, always explaining away their Boston marriage-like cohabitation as a consequence of financial necessity. (While it’s incomprehensible to imagine family members taking this justification at face value, I have been a first-hand witness to the bizarre collective denialism of relatives who clearly recognize but have never acknowledged their loved ones’ homosexuality.)
Bolan, Terry’s grand-nephew, utilizes his intimacy with the subjects to craft a story that is at once a moving portrait of long-lasting love and also a bittersweet meditation on the aging process. Tender without being cloying, naturalistic without seeming contrived, A Secret Love may be the ideal antidote to your least-favorite queer tropes. The film addresses trauma, but you won’t find an ounce of tragedy here.
Bolan intertwines two narratives: an intimate cinema verité “present,” in which Terry and Pat wrestle with Terry’s family over selling their house and moving into assisted living, and an edifying archival footage “past,” during which the couple narrates their personal histories over old photos and homemade movies. (Bolan began production on the film in 2013.) After living in terror for nearly their entire lives, it’s powerful to listen to elderly Terry and Pat speak candidly, and often wistfully, about their early romance.
To the rest of the world they were best friends — Pat quickly became a part of Terry’s large family — all the while they dated and even became engaged to men. After watching some interviews with Terry’s family, including her doting nieces who testify to the closed-mindedness of their aunt’s nuclear family, it’s easier to understand the women’s reticence to reveal their partnership, even while LGBTQ rights expanded in the U.S. and Canada.
In the wholesome film’s most shocking moment, Terry’s niece Diana quotes her own deceased father’s simultaneously vulgar, racist and homophobic commentary on his sister’s presumed sexuality, sadly proving the women right to stay tight-lipped about their lives. Another niece talks of feeling “betrayed” that her beloved aunt lied to her for her whole life, then insists the lovers get married so they can stop “living in sin.” (While they clearly love Pat, a protective but slightly irascible person, Terry’s family seems to see her less as a dismissible aunt-by-marriage than a monolithic stepmom.)
Produced by Ryan Murphy, A Secret Love deftly situates Terry and Pat’s story within the culture of the postwar era, steeping us in Terry’s career as a professional baseball player with the Peoria Redwings and educating viewers on the legal perils of patronizing an underground lesbian bar in Chicago in the 1940s and ’50s, when women had to don three articles of women’s clothing to avoid arrest for impersonating a man. Newspapers were brutal to women seized during these raids, printing their names and and places of employment. (Terry and Pat, both Canadian by birth, refused to risk their immigration status and stayed away from queer nightlife.)
Terry suggests a large portion of her fellow athletes in the AAGPBL were queer, describing her youthful fear at the rumors of such women, which caused her and her roommates to lock their doors at night long before she met Pat. Think of A Secret Love as a spiritual sequel to Penny Marshall’s classic A League of Their Own, which, despite being a marvelous film, unrealistically eschews the possibility of queer love among its subjects. (As part of the rise of female sports dramas on TV, Amazon is currently developing a series based on the 1992 comedy, which is certain to include LGBTQ characters thanks to writer and star Abbi Jacobson.)
The history is fascinating and necessary, as audiences rarely get to see elderly women recount their same-sex love stories, but there’s also beauty in the scenes documenting the octogenarians’ waning battle for independence. Pat has never had to “share” Terry, whose family lives in Edmonton, Alberta, and desperately wants to pair to move there, but as her partner’s Parkinson’s progresses, she must contend with insistent niece Diana.
In some of the doc’s most volatile moments, we’re privy to a tearful argument between Pat, who falsely claims they can’t afford to move into an assisted living facility, and Diana, who is alarmed at her aunt’s rapid and dangerous weight loss. Like many seniors, Pat fears the loss of her sovereignty, but she also dreads submitting herself to possible homophobia and ostracism at a residential community that has never welcomed a same-sex couple before. After all, at that point in time, she and Terry had only been open about their relationship for roughly five out of 65 years together.
Fans of queer cinema, A League of Their Own or just good old-fashioned love stories will find much to celebrate in A Secret Love, including a profound wedding scene that rivals any of the nuptials in cinematic history. As it turns out, there is crying in baseball.
Directed by: Chris Bolan
Producers: Ryan Murphy, Alexa L. Fogel, Brendan Mason
Executive producers: Alexis Martin Woodall, Marci Wiseman, Jeremy Gold, Mary Lisio, Jason Blum
Premieres: Wednesday (Netflix)