Review: A 72-year lesbian romance for the ages revealed in ‘A Secret Love’
The moving Netflix documentary “A Secret Love” dives into a truly great love story, one for the ages: the 72-year partnership between Terry Donahue and Pat Henschel, a couple of Canadian girls who fell in love in the late 1940s and kept their relationship a secret for decades.
Terry, a scrappy softball star from Saskatchewan, was recruited at age 19 for the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, the inspiration for “A League of Their Own.” She traveled to Chicago to try out and made the Peoria Redwings as a catcher, where she played for four seasons. But it was back home in Canada on the hockey rink where she met her soul mate, Pat, in 1947, and the two soon relocated to Chicago to live together as partners, always referring to each other as “cousins” or “good friends.”
Directed by Chris Bolan, Terry’s great-nephew, “A Secret Love” weaves the couple’s remarkable life story into a sensitive and intimate depiction of the two navigating the realities of growing older together, deciding on living arrangements, tangling with family, wondering whether they should get married after six decades of committed partnership, in sickness and in health.
What’s fascinating to witness are the complications that arise from having to rely on their family members in their golden years. Having only come out as a couple to their nieces and nephews in 2009, for fear of homophobia and rejection, Terry and Pat are used to hiding their relationship, not letting anyone else in, much to the chagrin of Terry’s adoring niece Diana. But secrecy was a stark reality of survival for gay and lesbian couples in the ‘40s and ‘50s, which is illustrated by a couple of interactions that Terry and Pat have with their longtime friends, a gay couple, and in interviews with activists who describe the criminalization of queer folks in those days. Raids on bars were common, and women could be “thrown in the paddy wagon” for wearing fly-front pants, accused of “impersonating men.”
But “A Secret Love” doesn’t dwell much on queer history or activism, as laser-focused as it is on Terry and Pat, and the bond between them. The film beautifully illustrates each of their spirits: the sweet and bubbly Terry, always ready with a signed baseball card, and the stern and protective Pat, who only lets her guard down under duress, but wrote pages of love poems to Terry, and still asks for a morning kiss from her love.
If the film is at all political it is in a deeply personal way, in the depiction of such a committed partnership and in the incredibly moving marriage ceremony between the two women, conducted with a solemnity and reverence for the tradition and vows. But that seems to be the way that culture changes: with a personal connection and empathy, and sometimes with a great, perfect love story, as revealed in this touching film.
Katie Walsh is a Tribune News Service film critic.
‘A Secret Love'
Running time: 1 hour, 22 minutes
Playing: Available on Netflix
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