• Illustration by Sam Leighton-Dore (Sam Leighton-Dore)
"Heroes are too rarely acknowledged in the frail, elderly or understated; but there’s no denying that to the Australian queer community, Peter (Bon) Bonsall-Boone was an unassuming trailblazer and a champion."
By
Sam Leighton-Dore

25 May 2017 - 3:22 PM  UPDATED 26 May 2017 - 11:55 AM

“People usually imagine that if two homosexuals live together like a married couple, that in fact it mirrors a heterosexual relationship; one of you adopts the dominating role and other is the housewife in the kitchen. Does this apply to your relationship?”

The woman speaking is respected reporter and documentary filmmaker Robin Hughes, formerly of the BBC. Sitting opposite her are two young men, smoking cigarettes over a breakfast of sausage and eggs.

“I would say not,” replies one of the men, Peter (Bon) Bonsall-Boone.

“So how do you decide your roles?” Hughes presses, in a tone that would now be considered condescending.

Bon’s partner of five years, Peter de Waal, calmly interjects.

“It would be decided by ability, I would think… I’m stuck with the cooking, which I don’t always like, but seeing as I’m best at it, I have to do it.”

By today’s television standards, the entire 45-minute episode of ABC’s Chequerboard program (which would later inspire 4 Corners) would’ve hit the cutting-room floor; unremarkable footage of two ordinary (albeit handsome) men going about their day-to-day lives. But in 1972, this interview, and the brief kiss which preceded it, shocked the nation.

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For those of us born in the '90s, it might be difficult to envision Peter and Bon’s Australia: an Australia where homosexuality was the cause of such fascination and outrage; an Australia where holding hands in Martin Place came with a genuine fear of criminal conviction. However, it’s only difficult to envision because those like Peter and Bon put their lives on the line to educate and change a nation.

Only 10 days following the program’s broadcast, Bon lost his job as a secretary at a church in Mosman. It wouldn’t be the last sacrifice he made for his relationship, either; homosexuality would remain criminalised for another 12 years and Bon would be arrested and charged at the first Mardi Gras protest in 1978. Over the following years, the couple were incredibly proactive in the fight for change. They were founding members of the Campaign Against Moral Persecution (‘CAMP’) and helped set up the first gay and lesbian telephone helpline from the living room of their Balmain home, called ‘Phone-a-Friend’, which would later become the Gay & Lesbian Counselling Service.

When the ABC revisited Chequerboard back in 2001, Bon reflected on his decision to speak openly on the program.

“I can remember thinking then that I was being given the opportunity to come out on national television and that that was going to save me ever having to come out as a gay person again,” he said.

“I think we were very naive in a sense,” Peter added. “But more-so I think we were so committed to the liberation of homosexual people, as we were called then, and I think that commitment sort of overruled everything else.”

“It was a devastating thing for Bon to get the sack,” Peter said. “We didn’t expect it, least from an organisation that is supposed to be filled with compassion, but out of that grew something which still exists today. I think that’s a wonderful thing to have happened.”

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Speaking to SBS as a part of this year's Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras Coverage, Bon voiced his ongoing passion for marriage equality to be legalised.  

“As I recall from the days of AIDS in the 1980s, many of the people after whom I cared had there lovers refused from hospital wards. If they’d been married, there would’ve been no doubt about that. We feel we still carry a label as second class citizens - and we’d like that to be removed.” 

“We have no idea when we’ll be able to get married,” Bon added. “At the moment I have a limit to my lifetime, which gives us about six months to play with.” 

When Bon passed away peacefully last Friday morning, he should have done so as a married man. It’s impossible not to feel angry or frustrated by the idea that these two loving men, who fought with such grace and dignity against ignorance for over fifty years, were denied their final wish.

However, last night, as I watched the original 1972 episode of Chequerboard with both my father (who was visiting for dinner) and partner of three years, I couldn’t help but feel an overwhelming sense of respect and gratitude for Bon. Heroes are too rarely acknowledged in the frail, elderly or understated; but there’s no denying that to the Australian queer community, Peter (Bon) Bonsall-Boone was an unassuming trailblazer and a champion.

Bon didn’t want a funeral, but when his friends, family and loved ones gather to celebrate his life on a Saturday afternoon in the coming weeks, they won’t be thinking of his marital status. Instead, they’ll be remembering his fighting spirit, a spirit which lives on in the community he served so passionately for so long.