When I saw the preview for “A Secret Love on Netflix,” I was excited. As a queer woman in a relationship with a woman, learning about LGBTQ+ elders is important to me. The documentary tells the story of Pat Henschel and Terry Donahue, who met in the late 1940s and were partners for over 70 years. The couple kept their relationship a secret from their families for over 60 years. Going off those details, the premise is incredibly intriguing. But watching it brings up a lot of concerns, especially when it comes to LGBTQ+ struggles and storytelling.
It’s important to note, the documentary was made by Terry’s family in collaboration with Ryan Murphy. Chris Bolan, the film’s director, is Terry’s great-nephew, son of Terry’s niece Diana. Diana features heavily, and depending on your feelings, can be the villain. I didn’t learn this until after watching the documentary. And it gives validity to much of my discomfort.
Pat and Terry met in 1947. During the off-season of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (like in A League of Their Own), Terry returns home to Canada and meets Pat while playing hockey. The young women are instantly smitten with each other. And even through traveling for baseball and engagements to men, they begin a long life together. Obviously, they keep their love a secret for a long time because of societal views of lesbians. But through it all, their commitment never wavers.
While “A Secret Love” is incredibly heartwarming, there are parts that made me uncomfortable. Especially as a queer woman. Much of the actual love story feels unimportant to the filmmakers. There is far more focus on the aging women and them making a decision to sell their Chicago suburb home and move. Sure, these things are valid and important to discuss. But not in a documentary selling itself as a love story.
It’s clear that Pat will do anything to make Terry happy. Even if that means giving up the city they’ve called home for 70 years. Pat’s reluctance to move from Chicago to Canada is significant, but not for the reasons they make you think. She cites the weather as a big reason. However, it’s a different kind of chill she’s looking to avoid.
“Everybody loves Terry,” Pat says wisely. “They put up with me because of Terry.”
One of the most troubling themes of “A Secret Love” is the constant villainizing of Pat. Diana claims that Pat has “never” liked the family and “keeps” her “Auntie Terry” away from them. But if you read between the lines, Diana is constantly antagonistic in her interactions with Pat. Then in the next breath, she paints herself as nothing more than a caring niece. And she wants what’s best for her aging aunt. During a particularly tense standoff, Diana has a total breakdown, insinuating that Pat hates her and wants Terry to keep secrets from her.
The women didn’t reveal their real relationship to the family until 2009. But “A Secret Love” doesn’t delve into why Pat and Terry kept their relationship a secret for 60 years. Terry does briefly confess her fear of being abandoned by the family had she come out sooner. Additionally, Diana mentions her father (Terry’s brother) was a bigot and suggested his sister could be “cured.” Apparently, she once asked her Auntie Terry if she was a lesbian, and took Terry’s denial as truth.
Terry’s family’s actions can give you some insight into her keeping quiet. Though some claim the couple’s relationship “doesn’t matter” or change their love for Terry, it’s hard to believe. One niece makes a comment about the couple getting married so they aren’t “living in sin.” At the same family dinner, Terry’s discomfort is palpable. When Pat kisses her hand, Terry physically stiffens.
One of the biggest lessons to learn from “A Secret Love” is what it looks like when queer people don’t tell their own story. Though we don’t know Bolan’s sexuality, it’s clear that Pat and Terry’s lives as members of the LGBTQ+ community isn’t his priority. You hear Pat and Terry talk about keeping their romance a secret, but not the lives they’ve lived as out lesbians. Though they’re selling it as a love story, who is it a love story for?
Initially, my excitement over the documentary was about seeing how things have changed for lesbians in the last 70 years. I didn’t come out to my family until my 30s. Like Pat and Terry, my fear was my family’s disapproval. Thankfully, they were more receptive than either woman’s family was. Another thing I was hoping for was LGBTQ+ history. These women lived through it all: gay liberation, women’s rights, “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” and finally the right to marry. What do they think of how the world’s changed? Sadly, we never get to find out.
We don’t even get to see how Pat and Terry find their “people.” But it’s clear that during their 70+ years together, they are part of a tight-knit queer community. There is a flash of it during a dinner with a gay male couple who are obviously old friends. Unfortunately, that interaction is framed by them griping about having to move away from Chicago. We never even get to see them interact with other lesbians. There’s only a story from Terry’s days in the AAGPBL, talking about how she locked herself in her room to keep the lesbians away from her. Part of their love story is how they came into their identities as lesbians, and we never learn any of that.
The treatment of not just Pat and Terry, but of their love story, leaves a lot to be desired. There are hints of it through old home movies and photos. There’s a beautiful moment where you see them showing Diana old love letters they to wrote each other with their signatures carefully ripped off to hide their identities. But there is little else. Even much of the focus during their wedding is about Terry’s family and their feelings. No mention of how the women feel, finally being legally able to marry each other after 70 years together. That’s more interesting than yet another speech from Diana about how much she loves her Auntie Terry.
“A Secret Love” is a beautifully made story that leaves a lot of room for more questions. And they are questions the film could have answered. It feels like a queer story for a straight audience. The filmmakers (Terry’s family) want pats on the back for accepting Pat and Terry. But the thing is, do they actually accept them? Because it sure doesn’t feel like they do. Their lesbian identities shouldn’t just be an anecdote to parade out when it fits the story. Their lives as “out” women, their struggles telling their families, and the way they navigate the world should be at the forefront. You can’t say the documentary is about a lesbian love story when it’s not. The story is about a family trying to come to terms with who their beloved aunt really was. And that’s fine. But it’s not the story Pat and Terry deserve.
“A Secret Love” is available now to stream on Netflix.
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