Their Secret Lesbian Affair Began in 1947. After 70 Years, They Finally Came Out.
Terry played in the all-female baseball league from “A League of Their Own.” Pat was more into hockey. It was love at first sight, and every day for the next 72 years.
Pat Henschel was trying to be supportive. “You have to tell her before dessert,” she told Terry Donahue, who she’s spent her entire adult life sharing a house with. Terry’s niece, Diana, was visiting them from Canada and now was the time, but Terry was too nervous.
Soon, dinner was over. Terry went into the kitchen and came back with the dessert. “Diana, I’ve got somethin’ to tell ya,” she said. She was shaking and started to cry. “We’re gay.”
Overwhelmed, Diana ran over to Auntie Terry, threw her arms around her and said, “I don’t care.” Terry was so afraid of losing her love. She gave Diana her blessing to tell the rest of the family. “Since that day it seemed like a great big thing had been lifted off my shoulders,” she said.
It was 2009. At that point, Terry and Pat had been together for 62 years.
In old age and staring down their own mortality after what would, at the documentary’s filming, be seven decades together, Terry and Pat recall kindling their affair in secret—and keeping it that way, employing the tried-and-true “we’re roommates” ruse from their twenties until long after separate copies of AARP magazine started arriving on their doorstep.
As their health starts deteriorating and they struggle with how to care for each other in the domestic bubble they’d created to protect themselves and their love, they learn that coming out later in life carries its own particular challenges. It’s a beautiful portrait of a romance told with a light touch, allowing for the weight of what a life spent together means as it nears its end.
It was love at first sight for Terry and Pat, and love every day after that for the next 72 years. That was especially true in those later ones, as their families learn their secret, they contemplate marriage, and grapple with where they want home to be on the fateful day that they must finally say goodbye to each other.
Like the best love stories, it will wreck you. But the remarkable thing about A Secret Love—and about Terry and Pat—is how joyful it is, that for all the pain, secrecy, and struggle, theirs is a LGBT love story of almost unfathomable happiness, especially when you consider how these things are ordinarily portrayed in pop culture.
There’s something else there, too, something slightly melancholy, or a touch bittersweet that cuts the sweeping loveliness of a story like this. For so long, LGBT+ narratives have been centered on loss and tragedy, about people warring with their identity and coming out, the specter of a plague and death, and love stories defined by obstacles. It’s only recently that we’ve gotten to see what it’s like for a couple to find love and keep it, to hold hands into old age together, to have the love of a lifetime that lasts for a lifetime.
That as a fact is sad. But what a transformative, uplifting thing to witness, especially for young people or those who have been hesitant to accept the LGBT community and ideas like same-sex marriage: the image of what same-sex love looks like not in the throes of passion or youth, but in the actual happily-ever-after of a life lived, approaching the sunset. It’s a profound kind of solace, and it’s very new.
Pat and Terry met in 1947, on a Sunday, at a skating rink. Pat was 18. Terry was 22. “It was one of the best days of my life when I met her,” Pat said.
They were both athletes. Pat liked to play hockey. Terry had traveled to the U.S. from Canada a year earlier to try out for the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, the legendary short-lived all-female baseball league dramatized in Penny Marshall’s 1992 cinema classic A League of Their Own, starring Tom Hanks, Geena Davis, and Lori Petty. Throughout A Secret Love, both Terry and Pat are seen wearing T-shirts and sweatshirts emblazoned with the movie’s famous line: “There’s no crying in baseball.”
The Peoria Redwings drafted Terry as a catcher and utility infielder. The charm school and beauty classes from the film were a real thing. So was the amazing athletic ability. Archival footage of the women on the field in A Secret Love is awe-inspiring. “They wanted us to look like ladies and play ball like men, and that’s what we did,” Terry said.
Terry didn’t have lesbian proclivities before meeting Pat. In fact, after hearing rumors of same-sex behavior among other girls in the league, she and her roommate would drag their dresser in front of the hotel room door at night in order to protect themselves. But all that changed the one night she and Pat went skating together. Pat wrote her a love note, and that was it.
Naturally, they had to sneak around. Sometimes they would get hotel rooms in the middle of the day. When they were lucky, they could sneak away to a remote farm. Eventually they lived together in Chicago as “roommates,” first renting an apartment together and eventually buying a house.
There were men in their lives throughout all this. Pat was engaged at 18, but her fiancé died. She was seeing another man who was an Army pilot, but he was killed in the war. Then there was the son of a farmer, and the lethal accident that one afternoon with the tractor. She stops short of calling herself a black widow.
So much of her early life was defined by death, actually. All but one sibling died prematurely, as did her mother. When her father remarried, both he and his new wife were killed in a train accident. By that point, Terry and Pat had been “roommates” for years. Terry’s parents welcomed their daughter’s good friend into their lives after she was orphaned, and considered her family.
That’s the thing about Terry and Pat’s relationship: Their respective families loved and embraced the other’s companion as family, never thinking twice that they were more than friends. It took until they were octogenarians for Terry and Pat to finally come out to them. They didn’t want to lose those relationships.
The families didn’t know about the persecution of gay people in Chicago that instilled the fear of God into Terry and Pat, about the raids on underground gay bars, about the women thrown into paddywagons if they were caught wearing less than three articles of female clothing, their names and professions printed in the paper. Terry and Pat never went to the bars. They didn’t want to risk it. They were in the U.S. on green cards. What if they were caught and sent back to Canada?
They accrued a chosen family over the years, as the LGBT community does. That family made it all the way to see gay marriage legalized. Do they get married now, after all this time? For these couples, is there a reason to, after an entire life together? As Terry and Pat begin to bring their family into this part of their lives, it’s a prominent conversation, on a par with where they are going to live to spend their dying days.
There’s not much more to say about A Secret Love, other than to stress how touching it is.
At a time when the circumstances of the world make us think more acutely than ever about the power of human connection and about our relationships with the people we love, there’s something visceral about this story. But take everything unique or circumstantial out of it—Terry and Pat’s sexuality, the times we’re in, all of it—and there’s something just massive and absolutely fundamental about their love.
In a scene near the end of the documentary, Pat is confined to a hospital bed. Terry, herself in a wheelchair, tells her everything is going to be OK. She takes Pat’s hand and starts to bend down toward it. Terry has Parkinson’s and is shaky. The gesture takes a long time. An incredibly long time, actually. The effort seems to be too much, but Terry doesn’t think anything of it. Many moments pass, but she makes it. She kisses Pat’s hand.
“You kind of broke the rules your whole life,” one of Terry’s nephews tells her at one point. “Yes I have,” she says. “That’s why I’m happy.”