For more than 60 years, Terry Donahue and Pat Henschel kept their romantic relationship hidden from co-workers, family members and the world at large. In a quietly poignant scene from this excellent documentary directed by Chris Bolan, son of Donahue’s niece Diana, we see them refer to one another as “cousins” during a phone call with a doctor. But A Secret Love, produced by American Horror Story co-creator Ryan Murphy and debuting on Netflix after COVID-19 thwarted its SXSW premiere, isn’t just a film about maintaining a gay relationship during decades when homosexuality was considered abhorrent; it’s also an affecting exploration of the immense challenges posed by growing old.
Bolan’s film follows Donahue and Henschel over the course of seven years in which they gradually accept that the life they’ve built together in Chicago is no longer sustainable. Donahue is affected by Parkinson’s Disease and is becoming increasingly debilitated. Her niece, Diana, wants her beloved Aunt Terry and slightly less beloved, non-biological Aunt Pat to move into an assisted living facility. Leaving a home of many decades is a life-changing dilemma faced by many octogenarians, but it’s also a symbolic one for this ageing gay couple. For understandable reasons, Henschel appears especially reluctant to return to Canada, the country she and Donahue left in the ‘40s so they could live together privately but happily in a place where nobody knew them.
Though Bolan’s film uses talking heads to provide some queer historical context, this isn’t a film about the hard-won battle for LGBTQ acceptance. Donahue and Henschel explain that they never visited Chicago’s underground lesbian clubs because they were worried about getting arrested and having their green cards revoked. Instead, they carefully concealed their sexuality from outsiders, always wearing dresses and makeup at work to appear suitably “lady-like”, while slowly building a chosen family of fellow LGBTQ folks. In a sweet final scene, we see the women’s biological and chosen families merging at a moment of great importance for the couple.
Their touching story has another fascinating historical dimension: for several years in the ‘40s, Donahue played in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, the pioneering women’s sports league that inspired the Geena Davis/Madonna movie A League of Their Own. Bolan doesn’t delve too deeply into its history, presumably because it might distract from his film’s central love story, but there are tantalising hints that the league may have been a place where young gay women could find a temporary home.
It almost goes without saying that parts of A Secret Love are deeply moving, particularly when the health of both women begins to deteriorate. Donahue and Henschel clearly aren’t queer activists and their semi-closeted way of life could seem quaint in 2020, but it’s impossible not to admire the stoic and uncomplaining way they made their love work during far less tolerant times.
- Director: Chris Bolan
- Starring: Terry Donahue, Diana Bolan, Pat Henschel
- Release date: April 29 (Netflix)