When I sat down to watch A Secret Love on the day it premiered on Netflix, as part of a virtual viewing party, I had a vague idea that it would be a feel-good story about a long-term lesbian couple who met while playing in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League in the 1940s. In fact, only Terry Donahue played in the league. She and Pat Henschel met in 1947 at an ice-skating rink in Western Canada, where they were both born and raised. They moved to Chicago where they were able to live and have professional careers free from family scrutiny.
But I was not prepared for the central role in the documentary film played by Terry’s nieces, Diana Bolan and Tammy Donahue; nor was I prepared for their jarring, casual homophobia.
A Secret Love begins with Terry and Pat coming out to their families after having been a couple (they told co-workers that they were “cousins”) for over 60 years. Simultaneously, Terry’s family decides that the couple is too old to live independently. Some viewers will undoubtedly see Diana, Terry’s niece, as a savior: Two older lesbians are in failing health and find that their independent, unconventional life and childlessness has finally caught up to them.
For Terry, Diana is “the daughter I never had.” It is an intimate bond her niece reciprocates, but it leads Diana to insist on taking authority over her aunt in a way that displaces Pat. Diana prods, pries, screams, and cries, begging the couple to “let her in” so that she can persuade them to move into assisted living, something Pat resists but Terry welcomes.
Pat capitulates, and it is the end of their independence and privacy. Diana orchestrates one move, and then a second. At one assisted living home, Diana offers the toast to Terry and Pat at their wedding. These events sustain Diana’s story: Aunt Terry was like a mother to Diana her entire life, and Diana was always there for her in return. Begrudgingly, Diana is there for Pat as well, but she seems to resent the fact that Terry chose to build a life with Pat in Chicago, away from Diana and the rest of the family.
Many will cheer the ability of Terry’s family to embrace the truth about her life. But what the filmmaker sees as a happy ending also displaces this couple from their own story. For the weary queer viewer, Diana is at best a distraction from a lesbian history that could easily stand on its own. At worst, she is an upsetting vector for what Sarah Schulman has called “familial homophobia.” Take the coming-out scene: Terry was visibly shaken as she muttered the words “We’re gay,” and the best response Diana could muster after decades of devotion from her beloved aunt is “I don’t care.”
In most other circumstances, “not caring” is dismissive, negative, or neutral at best. How “not caring” has become synonymous with acceptance and love in the minds of straight people is beyond me. But Terry is visibly relieved by this answer, reflecting that “a great big thing had been lifted off my shoulders.”
The rest of the family illustrates just as clearly why for 60 years Terry might have not trusted the people who claimed to love her. Another niece, Tammy, who clearly had minimal connection to her aunt and more than one bone to pick with her, declares that she feels “betrayed” and burdened by the disclosure as if something was done to her. “Hearing that my aunt’s a lesbian is hard for me,” she says. “All these years they’ve been together, and they’ve hidden this secret from us, but they should get married. Living in sin is not a good thing,” she says, laughing nervously.
No family member expresses regret that this secret had to be kept. Somehow, everything is the fault of Terry and Pat — both the secret and the not being married — rather than a consequence of a lifetime of stigma and fear that they would be rejected by people Terry loves.
But homophobia comes in many flavors. Diana’s prejudice is less blatant and therefore more insidious than Tammy’s. Diana fundamentally does not recognize Pat’s place as Terry’s best friend, lifelong companion, lover, and spouse. Instead, she positions herself as an equal in their relationship, and a competitor for Terry’s love and affection. “Auntie Pat’s throwing up roadblocks all over the place,” she rants in one childish temper tantrum, as Pat sits there, stunned. “I think that she doesn’t want to come here because then Auntie Terry will have someone else in her life besides Pat. She’s never had to share Auntie Terry with anybody.”
Of course, Diana wouldn’t know, because she hasn’t been part of a life that was hidden from her. She never really gives Pat a fair shake, and neither does the filmmaker. Tammy shares Diana’s view as well, imagining Pat as an outsider who will never be one of them. “Our family is a good family,” she insists. “We are there for each other. But my take on this: Pat has kept Terry away. I believe that Terry would have been around her family if it hadn’t been for Pat.”
This is one of the low points of the film, and it is only made sadder by a subsequent revelation that Terry’s father loved Terry and Pat as a couple, even though he never spoke about the relationship directly or breached their privacy by asking for the truth. Terry remembers her father as an understanding man who knew she was a lesbian — even if they didn’t use the word — and “liked Pat very much.” She recalls him saying, “I’d rather see you this way than married to someone who would mistreat you.” Too bad Terry’s nieces refused to see what her father saw.
In fact, Diana fails to get her way the first time she tries to move her aunts out of their house. The most painful scene in the film by far is when she succeeds, an intervention that occurs when Terry has lost weight and is suffering from advanced Parkinson’s disease. Diana treats Pat like an outsider in her own home. She adopts a tone that is both patronizing and cruel, criticizing everything from Terry’s weight to Pat’s desperate desire not to leave their home.
Once again, Diana and the filmmaker make it all about her. But for the queer viewer, it is a nightmare scenario: A birth family member swoops into your gay relationship while one of you is sick and dying, demanding to know everything and seizing the authority to make all decisions.
What is worse is that Diana portrays Pat as an uncaring, incompetent, and borderline abusive person for trying to make her own decisions, although there is no actual evidence that Pat is any of these things. Consider why she feared Diana’s intrusion: When Pat told her brother, Al, her only surviving birth family member, the truth about her relationship and her desire to get married to Terry, he said, “You can’t do it. It’d hurt our family.”
Aside from their friendship network, Terry was Pat’s only family.
And Pat may have known how little power she had once Diana arrived on the scene. Prior to their marriage in the assisted living facility, Diana and her family members were Terry’s legal next of kin, who could have insisted on making Terry’s financial and healthcare decisions as she lost the ability to do so herself. The film does not disclose any existing legal agreements the couple may have had to protect their rights. But too many LGBTQ people have lived through this calamity, and it was a practical incentive for many couples to marry when it became legal. Pat’s caution, reserve, and resistance were born of real trauma, fear, and well-founded mistrust that goes unrecognized in the film.
A Twitter friend noted my outrage and countered that she was more enamored of the couple’s successful long-term relationship and as a consequence, less annoyed by Diana. I wanted to have this experience, so I watched the film again. I focused intently on how the two lovers, Pat and Terry, touched each other, how they looked at each other, spoke to each other, and finished each other’s sentences. Terry was very clear at the start of the movie about how she felt: “I don’t care where we go. As long as we’re together, we’ll be happy.” The film is sprinkled with such sweet sentiments. At times, it is beautiful. The photographs and home movies kept by the couple over the decades are stunning. Any historian would pay to learn more about the time, place, and context for the footage.
But significantly, perhaps because the filmmaker is more interested in Terry’s return to her family, their actual past is only hinted at. Outside of Terry’s short career in baseball, we learn very little about the details of the couple’s richly documented history — or about their world in Chicago’s queer community.
The film also provides little insight into how friendship and community with other gay people sustained Terry and Pat during decades of tremendous change for queer people, from 1947 to 2019. One lovely scene with a gay male couple who are obviously lifelong friends, Jack and John, provides a rare glimpse into gay social life and cultural norms among their generation. They discuss marriage (none saw a great need for it, even though it was recently legalized in the state of Illinois); gay nightlife in the 1950s (they preferred house parties to bars, the scene of frequent raids and arrests); and the importance of their friendship. John asks Pat and Terry if they are thinking of moving somewhere warm, and Pat replies: “Well, if you’d come along. It’s difficult to leave your friends.” For Pat, friends are family. This may have been true for Terry as well, but it is hard to know, since the filmmaker allowed her birth family to dominate the film.
Ironically, because A Secret Love is way too much about Diana, it does produce rare moments of insight about familial homophobia. When they have packed up the house, Diana realizes that Terry had an entire life that didn’t include her. “Auntie Terry’s going to be thrilled to see these pictures. Pictures of their travels and their friends. And I don’t even know who these people are. These people. They have a whole other family, besides us,” she marvels. “They’ve had this whole other life.” This realization returns on their wedding day. “I want to tell you that this is a glorious day and we want to thank everybody that’s here for coming,” Diana announces. “You have been beloved friends over the years. And we’re very grateful for you being their other family.”
This recognition was perhaps heartfelt, but it is also kind of sad: How did Terry experience being so unseen for most of her adult life by people she clearly loved? We never know because the filmmaker doesn’t ask.
As those who gathered for our virtual viewing party processed the film, things spiraled pretty quickly from mild annoyance to intense outrage at the indignities the couple (and especially Pat) suffered at Diana’s hands. Then we plunged into full-fledged despair about the fate of so many LGBTQ elders who are cut off from their communities and friendship networks in old age, as birth families, they sometimes scarcely know swoop in to care/manage/destroy their lives. Sometimes, when they go into assisted living or long-term care communities, they are forced back into the closet.
Not only is this already happening all around us, but what will keep it from happening to us? Have we tended our intergenerational friendships and networks well enough to save our older friends? To save ourselves? Heteronormativity and the security of traditional family were so prominent in the second half of the story that by the end of the film we questioned our own decisions not to have children. Who would take care of us? Was this inevitable?
I did not expect that watching a celebrated documentary of a lifelong lesbian relationship would leave a group of lesbian and queer people so depressed, and questioning our own life choices. Wasn’t it supposed to make us happy about progress — or something? Instead, the film left us with a poor version of progress (everyone is out and gay-married and the birth family approves!) that is an awkward, painful mess.
Jen Manion is associate professor of history at Amherst College, and a senior editor at Public Seminar.