Sade may have sung the praises of “no ordinary love,” but what happens when an ordinary love becomes, over time and against obstacles, something quite extraordinary? From the relatively comfortable vantage point of 2020, Terry Donahue and Pat Henschel’s nearly seven-decade-long relationship looks just like any other enduring long-term partnership. Throughout the new documentary “A Secret Love,” the two elderly women field visits from family, attend dinner parties with friends, and keep each other fed, rested, and medicated. They hold hands, they kiss, they reminisce. So easy and natural are these simple moments of domestic bliss that they are almost rendered unremarkable. But of course, nothing could be further from the truth.
The magic trick of “A Secret Love” is to shine a light on this quietly intimate story, which honors and preserves one minute but monumental chapter of queer history. It is unfortunately all too rare for young LGBTQ people to interact with their elders, and “A Secret Love” provides a precious example of a committed long-term queer relationship, as well as a vital record of how different things were way back when. There are scant dramatic turns or shocking revelations, but “A Secret Love” is thoroughly enjoyable, heartfelt wholesomeness from start to finish.
The film sticks to the basics: Terry and Pat. You better believe these two have enough charisma to carry a whole film. With her permanent grin and affable demeanor, no one would disagree with Pat’s assertion that Terry is the favorite. “Everybody loves Terry. They put up with me only because of Terry,” Pat quips drily, like a butch Elaine Stritch, entirely nonplussed about her status in the duo. How could she blame people for loving Terry, when she loves Terry most of all?
They are pioneers of their time — the women braved homophobia, discrimination, and potential arrest simply to be together. Hailing from Edmonton, Canada, they met at a party for “girls like them” in 1947, when Pat was 18 and Terry was 22. “You were pretty cute, my dear,” Pat muses over an old photo. The film makes excellent use of high quality archival footage and images that date back to the ’50s, which shows the young women ice-skating, beach-going, and donning stylish dresses and beaming smiles. They wore dresses, lipstick, and heels, looking like “ladies” so as not to stand out.
The women moved from Edmonton to Chicago in the ’50s, surmising (correctly) that it would be easier to live a life together unnoticed in the U.S. metropolis. They lived and even worked together, telling their families they were roommates and justifying the arrangement with the cost of city living. “Anybody who was not gay didn’t know,” says Pat in her matter of fact manner.
In between these lovely memories, the film devotes ample time to Pat and Terry’s domestic life in the Chicago suburbs as they face the thorny dilemma of aging. Their niece Diane frequently visits the women, both in their 80s. She broaches the topic of assisted living facilities, gently at first and then more forcefully, which becomes a tender point of tension throughout the film. As the younger one, Pat thinks she can take care of Terry and wants to stay in her own home, while Terry would be fine selling all of their possessions and moving back to Canada to be near her family.
One of the film’s most moving scenes comes from Diane’s emotional pleas to Pat, in which she expresses her worry that Pat never loved her. It’s an intimate window into the complexity of familial wounds, which can stretch back years to repressed and re-interpreted memories. Director Chris Bolan deserves credit for making the scene work as a fitting dramatic crescendo; it packs an emotional punch while not going overboard.
A fascinating piece of history arises out of Terry’s career playing four years in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, which became the basis for Penny Marshall’s 1992 classic “A League of Their Own.” She was a catcher, just like Geena Davis’ character, Dottie Henson.
“A Secret Love” is full of the kind of gentle ribbing and loving chuckles one would expect from any adorable old couple, but it’s made all the more poignant by the fact of Pat and Terry’s trailblazing personal histories. When Terry, looking out the car window at a group of Segway riders in Chicago, says “I’d like to get on one of those things,” you believe she really could. As “A Secret Love” makes very clear, Pat and Terry could do anything they set their minds to. And thanks their sacrifices, so can so many others.
“A Secret Love” is currently streaming on Netflix.