When stories are told about the LGBTQ+ segment of society, they rarely focus on older people. Yes, historical films go back in time to illuminate events like the Stonewall Riots and other touchpoints in the fight for gay civil rights, but those films tend to show the people when they were young and vibrant, not as they’re aging.
A subversion of that norm is just one of the notable things about the new Netflix documentary, A Secret Love. Written and directed by Chris Bolan, the film chronicles the lifelong love of Terry Donahue and Pat Henschel, two women who waited until they were well into their eighties to tell their family the truth about their relationship.
The bulk of the film takes place in the 2010s, with Terry and Pat struggling to maintain their longtime Chicago home as they age. They're trying to figure out their next step with the help of Terry’s niece, Diana Bolan. They’re also trying to come to an agreement on whether getting married is worthwhile at this stage in their lives.
Bolan and co-writers Alexa L. Fogel and Brendan Mason blend in photos and videos from throughout Terry and Pat’s life together, including Terry’s stint as a member of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League. The league, which was famously featured in the 1992 film A League of Their Own, proved a boon for the athletic Terry, and it also put her in the orbit of the equally athletic Pat, who was a hockey player in Canada.
This is not strictly a film about the prejudice that they encountered throughout their lives, although the undertone of discrimination is present throughout. Bolan makes sure to include details about the efforts Terry and Pat went through to assimilate into “normal” society, including dating men in their twenties and dressing like a woman “should” dress. But the film is mostly a celebration of their devotion to one another, one that appears to have rarely wavered since they found each other in the 1940s.
In fact, the film is as much about their aging as it is about their sexual orientation. The process of them finding a suitable retirement facility to move into and the ability of each woman to take care of the other — or herself — are the foci of much of the film. It’s such a familiar story that you have to take a step back to understand how different the process is for two unmarried lesbians who, until recently, couldn’t even fathom the idea of being able to get married.
There are multiple touching moments in the film, including a dinner with an older gay male couple that only touches the surface of what is obviously a long and meaningful friendship for Terry and Pat. Other seemingly ordinary things that heterosexual couples likely take for granted take on a different light when viewed through the prism of the life led by the two women.
A Secret Love is a refreshing film in that it doesn’t deal in the tropes that usually accompany stories about LGBTQ+ people. Instead, it simply makes the case that love is love, and the beauty is in a life well lived, no matter who’s doing the living.