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‘A Secret Love’: A Moving Documentary That Falls a Little Short

Heartfelt and moving, Netflix’s documentary A Secret Love (2020) shows the 72 year love story of two women. Director Chris Bolan, great-nephew to Terry Donahue and Pat Henschel, tells the story of his great-aunts and their love and devotion to each other. The story that the film tells is tender, and it’s incredibly sweet to watch Terry and Pat, who have been together for decades. However, I did question the areas of Terry and Pat’s story that the film chose to focus on, specifically the central focus on being in the closet and coming out.

Pat Henschel and Terry Donahue, the subjects of ‘A Secret Love’

Terry and Pat met in the late 1940s—Terry was a baseball player for the Peoria Redwings, a team in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League on which the film A League of Their Own (1992) is based. Falling in love during a time in which living as an openly gay couple was not an option due to discrimination, the two kept their relationship hidden, especially from their families. The present-day narrative of the film follows the two as their health declines in old-age and they make the difficult decision to enter an assisted living community.

I loved the parts of the film that focused on telling the story of Terry and Pat’s love—with video clips, photos, narration, and interviews with them about their lives as they fell in love in the late 1940s, lived in Chicago and formed their own found family of other queer people in the area, and continued to be incredibly devoted to each other. It explores queer romance and the endurance of love despite discrimination.

I felt incredibly emotional when the two were finally able to get married in a beautiful scene near the end of the film. At one point in the film, Pat says in reference to Terry: “What she means to me: she means everything,” and this point is quite clear as you witness the depth of these womens’ love for each other. It was also lovely to see an older LGBTQ+ couple represented on the screen, something both uncommon and beautiful.

Terry and Pat celebrate on their wedding day

However, a less-beautiful aspect of the film is the fact that its central focus is on the hidden-aspect of Terry and Pat’s romance, coming out, and Terry’s family’s relationship to Terry being gay. Shannon Keating at Buzzfeed described “the subtle but insidious homophobia baked into this very telling of their story,” and I feel inclined to agree. The film could have leaned into Terry and Pat’s love story and their found family in their home of Chicago. The one scene in the film that shows Terry and Pat having dinner with a gay couple they’re friends with was lovely, and I would have loved to see more. But the film’s title shows just how much the documentary will focus on the “secret” nature of this relationship, going into Terry’s family’s thoughts on Terry and Pat’s romance and their being in the closet. While this is, of course, one aspect of their story, there are so many others that could have been explored more.  

I do wish that Terry and Pat’s story had been told somewhat differently. What would this documentary have looked like were it made by, for example, a queer woman or someone with more distance from the story itself? However, for what A Secret Love is, it does tell a lovely love story.