A Secret Love
(USA, 83 min.)
Dir. Chris Bolan
Across seventy-two years of love and companionship, Terry Donahue and Pat Henschel have seen it all. Stories of the love lives of the elderly are rare in the movies, but this one is especially so as a portrait of two queer women whose relationship outlived most partnerships by any standard. Going from “cousins” to wives is a claim that few couples can make. A Secret Love tells the story of these two women and the journey together as their relationship rolled the tumultuous ride towards marriage equality. Their tale, intimately and affectionately told, charts an impressive chapter of history and underscores how much work remains to be done despite recent advances for LGBTQ rights.
Director Chris Bolan (Donahue’s great-nephew) goes into the lives of Terry, a Saskatchewan native, and Pat as they consider a dilemma that many couples face if they’re fortunate to live into their nineties. A Secret Love sees Donahue and Henschel take stock of their relationship while confronting their need to say goodbye to the home they built together and move into long-term care. It isn’t easy. The experience seems especially difficult for Pat given Terry’s deteriorating health due to Parkinson’s. Odds are they’ll be the first same-sex couple at whichever home they choose.
The women’s insight into the history of the road to marriage equality has an extra novelty thanks to a prior credit in Donahue’s career. Donahue is one of few women who played for the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League that substituted for Major League Baseball during the Second World War. Besides offering a turn at bat in an era when professional women’s sports weren’t a reality, the All-American League embodied the contradictory nature of gender roles in society at a time of significant change. Humorous archival footage shows the women going playing ball in short skirts, lest anyone they confuse pant-wearing athletes with men. Donahue’s story is immortalised along with her fellow players in Penny Marshall’s 1992 dramedy A League of Their Own. Besides offering one of cinema’s most memorable lines, ‘There’s no crying in baseball,’ Marshall’s film remains an upbeat and empowering work of positive representation.
It is therefore fitting to see Donahue’s life on screen again. A Secret Love features ample clips from A League of Their Own, but more memorable are the home movies and 8mm reels that chart the evolution of the couple’s romance alongside poems and love letters. Bolan goes behind the stories of the laughs and home runs of the All-American League to illustrate the secret life Donahue developed when she learned that girls could love girls. Donahue and Henschel recall how love blossomed out of sight and in between boyfriends with whom they went steady while fooling their families of perceived normalcy. They speak fondly of working together at the same office while convincing their colleagues that they were just good friends. (“Which we were!” they note in jest.) Similarly and significantly, they recall the fear of being outed and losing their jobs during an era in which homosexuality was a crime. Anything from wearing the wrong kind of pants could change a girl’s life.
This climate of fear speaks to the long journey towards acknowledging their love with their family. Donahue’s niece, Diana, is like a surrogate daughter to the former ballplayer as she enters the film and shares memories of their close relationship. What Bolan captures is a perfectly loving family as Diana cares for her aunt in old age with the same warmth and support she received as a child. However, Donahue’s fear about losing her family parallels the tension that arises while she and Pat consider moving. After a lifetime spent protecting one another, they need to entrust that responsibility to someone else.
A Secret Love is a refreshingly intimate and sweet romance. Bolan’s film is also a welcome celebration of marriage equality that is hard fought and well deserved. As the doc climaxes with Terry and Pat considering their long overdue trip down the aisle, it’s hard to make a case that their marriage is different from any other.
A Secret Love is now on Netflix.