Netflix's new documentary A Secret Love is the story of a relationship between two lesbians named Terry Donahue and Pat Henschel that began in the late '40s. For almost seven decades, even some of their family members remained in the dark about their life behind closed doors. The elderly couple face even more struggles in the latter half of the 81-minute movie.
Chris Bolan, Donahue's great-nephew, was inspired to create this labor of love after visiting his two great aunts. He captures many tender moments through archived footage, photos and love letters while covering hot topics that have affected so many people throughout the years.
Glee's Ryan Murphy produces the film and The Normal Heart's Jason Blum is executive producer. A Secret Love was scheduled to have its world premiere at South by Southwest this year, but was instead released on April 29 on Netflix's streaming platform because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Donahue and Henschel met after World War II and their relationship quickly blossomed, but remained hidden in the closet. When someone would discover their secret, they were swiftly told to not live their truth, so they remained quiet about their life together for many years.
At age 19, Donahue played in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League that inspired the hit movie A League of Their Own. There was no crying in baseball back then, and female players were required to slide into home wearing a skirt.
It was a different time indeed, as explained in the film by Chicago Reader publisher ( and Windy City Times owner ) Tracy Baim and local activist Marge Summit; lesbian bars were raided and the LGBT community was regularly treated unfairly. This was not a time to come out of the closet, as many feared for their very lives and some lost their jobs after their names were outed in the newspapers during this time period.
Younger folks in the LGBT community may watch this doc and feel like it's just a fairy tale, but controversy over civil rights still continues to this day. It was only in 2015 that the US Supreme Court passed gay marriage in all 50 states. There's a moment in A Secret Love where it is plainly seen in the couple's faces that they never thought marriage between two women would happen in their lifetime.
Despite all of the hardships, their sweet story can't be stopped. Bolan directs with such sensitivity that Donahue and Henschel's spirits shine through in the face of adversity as he allows outsiders to peek into their private lives.
While much of the story is set in the Midwest, it also moves to Canada where Donahue and Henschel visit a home for retirement. This approaches a topic that has been a concern for many of the aging LGBT community over the yearsthere are too few retirement homes that are welcoming to LGBT seniors. How sad that we have to watch these women struggle to come out once again as a same sex couple to an assisted living director. The two simply want to be treated like everyone else, with dignity and respect in their old age.
As health problems begin to plague the couple, they are forced to face a looming situation of selling their home and moving to a smaller space. This is where Henschel digs her heels in and shows she's the Bea Arthur in this golden girl relationship by being the strong arm. This could have gone badly if an agreement with Donahue's niece was not reached. The hard truth is courts are continuing to side with the family over an outside relationship, no matter the length of time two people are together. The struggle continues, but hopefully, a story like this one will make people think about the wishes of an ailing or deceased love one in the future.
Instead of veering too politically on this topic, A Secret Love shows we all need to work together and do the right thing.
The best documentaries make audiences relate to the subjects and this one excels in that department. It's a simple story about a secret romance and overcoming prejudice.
Shout it from the highest hills: A Secret Love will tug at a viewer's heartstrings for many years to come.