A few days ago I was curled up in bed ugly crying to this movie. Goddamn THIS MOVIE! A Secret Love is a tender look at a lesbian couple who kept their relationship under wraps for almost 70 years. While TIME calls the documentary “a heartfelt triumph” (which it mostly is), it’s not without its flaws. Ultimately, it begs the question: Who should be telling queer stories?
Terry Donahue and Pat Henschel met in 1947 at a hockey rink in Saskatchewan, Canada. Terry was a professional hockey player and a member of the Peoria Redwings in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, which famously inspired A League of Their Own. The two connected right away and fell in love. It’s a trip hearing Terry and Pat be so forthcoming about checking into a motel to hook up for fear of getting caught. They eventually moved to Chicago at the end of the decade when Terry got a job playing for a team there.
In the present day there’s tension between Terry’s family and Pat, because they feel that she has kept Terry away from them. Until 2009, they thought the couple were living together to save money (sure Jan). Terry’s niece Diana (director Chris Bolan’s mother) is especially emotional because Terry is like a mother to her. As Terry’s health declines, Diana fights to convince Pat to move into a retirement facility that can better meet her needs. Diana doesn’t feel Pat’s love for her is genuine, while Pat thinks Terry’s family only puts up with her for Terry’s sake. Things come to a head when Diana starts yelling at Pat out of frustration, which is understandable. Diana’s obviously concerned about Terry’s weight loss and Pat’s reluctance to move. At the same time, as Shannon Keating wrote in her critique, “neither Diana nor any other members of her family seem willing to extend to Pat the same sympathy they demand of her.”
There seems to be a failure to understand the difficulty of asking an old gay couple to leave their home of 60 years and their chosen family of queer friends to a facility without any other same sex couples. It’s a shame the film doesn’t explore this more. When Terry finally comes out to her family, she is met with love and acceptance. Yet, as Keating points out, there’s not much interrogation into Terry and Pat’s decision to come out, and their hesitation for so long. The film contextualizes the rampant homophobia in North America in the 1940s. But when it comes to Terry’s own family, nobody really asks why she’d be so scared to tell them when they’re presumably so accepting.
A Secret Love is at its best when telling Terry and Pat’s love story and their careers in sports. But it suffers from a watered down story, perhaps in an attempt to appeal to a wider (cough, straight) audience. Had the director not been Diana’s son, it’s possible there would’ve been more balance in telling Pat’s side of the story. Had the director been a queer woman, there are more nuanced conversations that could’ve been had, besides this preoccupation with “the closet.” Of course there are plenty of great gay films directed by straight people. But A Secret Love really could’ve benefited from a more queer perspective.
Header image credit: Netflix