(Press play before you start reading )
When two young Canadian girls started to fall in love in the 1940’s they decided the only way they could be together was to leave the Country and make tracks to Chicago where they could set up house together in the anonymity of a big city.
For Terry Donahue and Pat Henschel it was a case of love-at-first-sight in 1947 but being gay was impossibly tough back then so they kept their private life a secret for over 60 years. To their respective families they were known as spinster Aunts, and to the inquiring outside world they posed as cousins.
This excellent new heartstring-pulling documentary by Donahue’s great-nephew, Chris Bolan all came about when the two women finally came out of the closet to their families and had a wealth of stories to tell. Bolan filmed on and off between 2013 and 2018, when both women were in their eighties, and sadly having trouble accepting all the pitfalls of old age.
The women however shared their incredible archives of photographs and home videos which showed Donahue being a successful professional baseball player in her youth, and countless vacations and important lifetime moments that they had kept to themselves all these years.
The sheer seriousness of how they had to keep closeted is none more apparent when they are looking through a selection of beautiful prose that Henschel had written to Donahue in the early days of their love affair. Each of these hand wriiten pages had the bottom part torn off just in case they had been discovered by prying eyes.
Donahue’s niece Diane desperately worried about her Aunt’s failing health since she had been diagnosed with Parkinson and so tried to stage an intervention several times before she succeeded. The problem was the strong-willed Henschel who was adamant about not moving back to Canada and who resented any interference in what she saw as a perfect love nest that had served them well for decades.
Interesting enough although Diana had taken the fairly recent ‘coming out’ well, she was constantly surprised at various points in the film at the sheer strength of the ‘Aunt’s’ gay family. Biological families can rarely understand how as LGBTQ people we create our own alternative families that spontaneously give us the support and love that we have so often been denied at home.
The fact that this is remarkable love story shines through every single frame as old age and time has not dimmed the couple’s ardour for each other one single second. Diane at one point questions how genuine is the affection between her and Henschel, but if is lacking (!) in any way it’s because her entire life has been lived focused on Donahue and she has always been reluctant to share her with anyone.
This is a joyous piece of gay history that gives us all a window into this secret world of a gay couple that were so happily together for some 70 years. They are much needed role models for so many of us to follow. Plus seeing them with a new lease of live after finally sharing their secret love gives this tale such a wonderful happy ending.
Another small achievement was the fact they found a Seniors Home that openly accepted them as couple, as so many less fortunate elderly LGBTQ men and women are still often forced back into the closet when they enter Assisted Living.
Even though this is such a delightful story that is told so beautifully, still have a box of kleenex nearby, as you will need them from time to time.
Screening on Netflix from April 29th
Labels: 2020, documentary, gay history, lesbians, Netflix