SEE ME: A Walk Through London’s Gay Soho, July 1994 and July 2020

Discover the same other whilst under the cover
Creeping seeping peeping
covert operations
my teenage fascinations
awkward altercations
with non queer populations

Sensations that taught me
if ever they caught me
I got very clever
very clever at seeing without being seen

Summer 1994. Me a boy no more
I needed to see men like me
Shaved my hair to fit in where gay disco beats
fill London streets
Pet Shop Boys, Boy George, George Michael
Mix-tape boy
So much joy amongst
Gays like me who gaze and see

Nervous yet emancipated, a space so animated
My first time in a place with men like me everywhere
How excited I was the first time a guy gave me a stare
The kind us gays know means ‘I fancy you, bear’

(Erving) Goffman says our lives
are ‘performances’ for others
On Old Compton Street, I wasn’t ‘acting’
with my fellow gay brothers
Before coming out, the world saw a version of me
From back-stage to now on-stage, I finally felt free
This was the first time I was surrounded by
men who like men like me
men who look like me
men with bodies like mine
men who kiss male lips like I do
Amongst shaved heads and beards, I was at home
The Duke of Welly, for guys with a similar size belly
Another place for me to call home

July 2020. I walk through London’s Gay Soho
Headphones on
Listening again to those 90′s mix tapes
Pet Shop Boys, Boy George, George Michael
Retracing steps, retracing memories, retracing kisses
The first time walking around Gay Soho for many months
These streets that shaped my life appear like a dystopia
I cannot describe this elegy, this desolation
Bars and pubs now closed
Their bricks and mortar remain but their insides are empty
Devoid of bodies
Devoid of laughter
No music can be heard
No bodies can be seen
No kisses can be felt, just remembered

I remember first kissing a guy with hairy bodily fur
Now that seems even further far gone, even more of a blur

Bodies of hair
Bearded faces
replaced by dead air
inside boarded-up spaces

And yet this is a strange kind of missing
The first time I felt an almost distant violent absence
I am still troubled by what that I see in my community

I remember the first time I got dirty looks
from certain bears with disapproving stares

Someone said I should emancipate from this hate
But these wounds are hard to heal
Tongue lashings cut deep

Queer space is not straightforward
Queer space is troublesome
A historied palimpsest of community unrest
troubled up from those outside and from those within

Where can I now perform my visibility
in physical space?
Will I and my fellow queers who inhabited these spaces become invisible,
as our safe spaces disappear?
Will we too disappear or will something new emerge?
A new means to perform my being me, to see and be seen

An ending marks a beginning

Lee Campbell

The poetry film version of SEE ME (which recently won Best Experimental Film at Ealing Festival Festival 2022) can be found here.