Twenty years ago if you had asked me if the mainstream press would be gushing over a documentary about a 72-year lesbian relationship, I would have laughed. After all, in Oregon we had just lived through two hard-fought battles over anti-gay ballot measures, Matthew Shepherd had been murdered and President Bill Clinton had signed the Defense of Marriage Act.
But here we are in 2020, and the rave reviews are stacking up. The LA Times called Netflix’s A Secret Love a “lesbian romance for the ages.” The New York Times called it “affecting” and “winsome and heart-swelling.” Many reviews made reference to tears (the writer’s) and heartstrings.
While A Secret Love rarely delves into the political with its clear focus on the personal relationship between Terry Donahue and Pat Henschel as they are struggling with issues of aging, we feminists know that the personal is always political.
The film is directed by Terry’s grand-nephew Chris Bolan, who had incredible access to the intimate memorabilia of Terry and Pat’s life together, which we see throughout the film.
Terry played in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, but she met Pat in an ice hockey rink in their home country of Canada in 1947.
Of course, back then they had to hide their relationship. Homosexuality was still criminalized. They told people they were cousins or they lived together for financial purposes—even as Pat wrote Terry love poems and tore her name from the bottom of the paper in case they were found out. They moved near Chicago so Terry could continue her baseball career, but avoided the bar scene for fear of deportation if they were caught. Instead, they built their own queer family network with other gay men and lesbians through parties at home.
They didn’t come out to their family until 2009. That mostly went well with their conservative Canadian relatives—although some felt the couple had been lying to them, and one thought they should get married rather than “living in sin.”
That moment really captures both the ways family can sometimes find a way to make space for their queer relatives and at the same time be utterly unaware of the lifetime of barriers that kept them in the closet.
Terry and Pat did marry in 2015 but not without some discussion about whether or not the formality was needed after nearly 70 years. The film shows their wedding and the tender kiss that seals it, and all of us who have hidden our sexual identities and relationships from family know what a big moment that is.
The real center of the film, however, is the dilemma of aging. As Terry’s health diminished (she had Parkinson’s), her family wanted them to move back to their small hometown in Canada. Here’s where we really see how, despite their well-meaning, Terry’s family is unable to understand Pat’s resistance in particular.
Having spent a lifetime near Chicago, the couple has built up that chosen family so many queer people understand as a different and often more important support network than biological family. Most significantly, Pat worries about the possibility that they will have to enter housing where they are the only queer couple, and Terry’s family seems completely oblivious to the implications for a lesbian couple entering a heteronormative living environment.
While A Secret Love may capture a love story that people of all sexual identities can embrace, the fact that it is a lesbian love story matters. Love may be love—but it is always shaped by the social forces around it, and those of us who live similar stories know all the ways a lesbian love story is not the same as a heterosexual love story.
When my partner Catherine and I teared up during various scenes of the film, it wasn’t just because we were touched by the love and dilemmas of these two women. It was because, even though we’re a few generations younger, we have also lived many of those dilemmas. We’ve had to be in the closet, worry about losing jobs if we were found out, come out to conservative family members, and wait for years to marry. Now that Catherine’s retired, and I’m nearing retirement, we also worry about what aging will mean if someday we have to move into living spaces where we may be the only lesbian couple.
The political context that mostly remains behind the scenes in the film continues to shape queer life, and I want to make sure that straight viewers don’t overlook the political by universalizing romantic love and embracing a palatable lesbian love story as if the costs to living a queer life are not real and profound.
Certainly, the world has changed since Pat and Terry met in 1947. It’s changed tremendously since Catherine and I got together in 2007. But narratives of progress can obscure how far we still have to go—especially for queer folks who are people of color, poor, non-binary, disabled and aging.
It’s a beautiful, moving film, deserving of all the accolades it’s receiving. It makes queer love visible and subtly situates Pat and Terry’s story within these broader crosscurrents of homophobia, politics, family and ageism.
Terry died in 2019 at the age of 93, and Pat still lives in Canada.
We watch their story in a very different world than the one in which they lived most of their lives in secret except to a few close queer friends. But when they decided to live out and proud in a changing world, they did it in a big way. And we are all the better for it.