The Julia Darling Travel Fellowship: Emma McGordon in San Francisco

I like synchronicity. I like tracing back a long thread of time, people, and decisions to understand where I am now. Being awarded the Julia Darling Travel Fellowship and the subsequent trip felt like a big old whirring train of synchronicity hurtling through my life, and I still don’t think the train has quite finished passing.

Back in February 2017 I came across a social media post about a docu-film called Rebel Dykes about the lives of queer, punk women in 70s/80s London. The film was showing an early cut in Manchester, which I attended. This film is partly how I ended up being at the front of San Francisco’s famous Dyke March four months later. When I got home that night I found myself down the rabbit hole of the internet, (searching “Rebel Dykes” takes you to a lot of interesting places) and stumbled upon the San Francisco Frame Line Queer film festival. Somewhere in the same week I’d also read that the Julia Darling Travel Fellowship was open for entries. I had my idea.

Now San Francisco is a big crazy-ass place when you come from the rurality of West Cumbria and don’t know a soul. My memory of the first night, 26 hours into sleep depravation, was being in a piano bar in the Tender Loin area where they played dueling-piano versions of ‘Gangster’s Paradise’. I sung along and decided I’d definitely made it in life.

Later that week, I made my way towards the Mission District where the film festival was taking place. I’d signed up to be a volunteer and wanted to get to know the neighbourhood.

The Mission is a mix of extreme poverty, including high levels of visible homeless, living cheek by jowl with the super rich Generation Tech who are gentrifying the area with an alarming disregard for the people who made it – the Artists, the Queers, the wanderers.

I’d put myself down for a film called QueerCore: How to Punk a Revolution – I was so early that when I signed-on the volunteer list they thought I was there for another film and quickly issued my yellow volunteer shirt.

It was while on the door, volunteering for the wrong film, that a person I can only describe as rocking up looking like one of the coolest people I’ve ever seen, starts asking me questions about the QueerCore film. I know this is somebody I definitely need to speak to as part of the project. They are everything that I didn’t grow-up with in West Cumbria. They need free tickets for the film, so with zero understanding of how I am going to acquire these tickets, I say it will be no problem at all.

This person turns out to be Lynne Breedlove. Lynne has not only come to see the film but is in the film as the lead singer of influential 70s Queer punk band Tribe8. After both films, which I did manage to sort tickets for, Lynne invites me to meet current band The Homobiles, including guitarist Fureigh who uses the pronoun ‘They’ (a whole other thing that I am slowly getting my head around and making a lot of mistakes along the way).

Fureigh tells me about an interesting gig happening in a couple of days, we arrange to meet, but they later can’t make it. I decide to go it alone. It is at this gig, surrounded by more Queer women than I ever thought possible, that I meet Shani Heckman. It had taken me a while to get in the place because I’d forgotten my ID, but I persuaded the woman on the door by talking about the Fellowship.

There’s a couple collecting for charity and I start talking to them because I’m feeling a bit weird about being alone. I talk about being a writer and they pull Shani over and say ‘she’s a scriptwriter, you should talk to her’. Shani is on the committee for Dyke March and invites me to work backstage. We make a vague plan and I get her contacts, but at that point I don’t have her surname and don’t actually enter the number correctly.

I’m a bit annoyed with myself, realising that I’ve lost the opportunity to get involved with exactly what I came here for.

The next day I go to the TransPride march in Dolores Park and I sit listening to an inspiring speech by trans women of colour. Now there are thousands of people in this park, but who, when I glance up is sitting literally two people away? Shani Heckman.

Shani makes a whole load of things possible, from helping out backstage and being on the lead team of the march to introducing me to more people including Cassandra Williams, one of life’s truly good humans. I spent my last day talking with her in a park in Oakland about how we’d both grown-up in small communities and the lack of Queer role models that had been available. She dropped me at the metro station later that day and I sat in the airport feeling like a changed person. So much more happened on this trip than I have space to write here.

Six months later and I have a collection of poems I am working on and will send out for publication in the coming months. I’m using language differently. I’ve thought about visibility and vulnerability, especially around people in small communities. And I’m still tracing and chasing that thread of time and circumstance that makes us who we are and who we will become. I am extremely grateful for the opportunity offered in Julia’s memory and am privileged to be able to say that I did meet her back at an awards ceremony in 2002. I could never have imagined then that I would, one day, help lead the San Francisco Dyke March in her name.

The Julia Darling Travel Fellowship is now open for submissions until Wednesday 1 May 2019. Find out more here.