Seventh-grade students win big for ‘Gayborhood’ documentary


Three student filmmakers last week presented their award-winning documentary at William Way LGBT Community Center. In the short film, entitled “The Gayborhood,” they illustrated Philadelphia’s LGBT-rights movement — from the Dewey’s Lunch Counter sit-in to overall visibility in the neighborhood known as Washington Square West.

The film begins with a voiceover from Finn Giddings, noting the strides made in that neighborhood.

“People who were queer could be arrested and fired from their jobs or given a mental-illness label,” Giddings narrated. “But fast-forward to 2018, it’s now called the Gayborhood, a place where peace marches happen annually and queer people live their lives freely.”

Prior to the Feb. 4 screening at William Way, the documentary won two awards, and there is potential for future projects from the filmmakers — all before they start high school.

Seventh-grade students at Penn Alexander School in Philadelphia — Giddings, Tahsin Zaman and Colin Bowerman — put together “The Gayborhood” through the school’s WHYY Media Labs program. Through this initiative, students learn a variety of disciplines such as video production, STEM and research skills.

The students decided on the film’s topic after noting the shortcomings in school history books.

“Not many people know about the LGBTQ-rights movement so we decided we would like to [focus our documentary on] that movement,” said Bowerman, who wrote the script for the voiceover.

Initially, the students wanted to produce a documentary about the overall LGBT-rights movement but decided to reel in their focus.

“We noticed that almost all of the LGBTQ history documentaries were about Stonewall and because we have such a prevalent Gayborhood in Philadelphia, [we thought] it would be more interesting and more relevant to us,” Giddings said, adding that he’s passionate about the topic.

The students submitted the film last year to the Philadelphia chapter of National History Day in the Group Documentary category, where it received an honorable mention. Bowerman said the film they submitted was largely unfinished, running more than 10 minutes with no concrete conclusion. While he appreciated the honorable mention from NHD, he said it ultimately inspired him to improve the film.

“It was just a reminder that I’m going to go into school tomorrow and I’m going to make this documentary better,” Bowerman said.

Those efforts paid off. The students took time to fine-tune the film to run at five minutes 36 seconds. They submitted the final project to the WHYY Youth Media Awards, which received more than 300 youth-created film submissions. At an awards presentation in November, the students received third place in the Middle School Documentary category.

Penn Alexander Principal Michael Farrell, who helped coordinate the presentation at William Way, said it was exciting to see both queer and non-queer students engage in this topic.

“Twenty years ago, this wouldn’t have been OK to talk about or unpack as a project at a school level,” the openly gay principal said. “I was excited to see my middle-schoolers were diving into it.”

Farrell added that this project illustrated how, regardless of any school’s curriculum, “students are eager to learn and bring their own identity and other people’s identities into their learning.

“Our kids are teaching adults in so many powerful ways now about what equity and justice look like. This was a student-led project where I think the adults learned from them how to be courageous and how to bring the history of this city — of this marginalized group — to the surface.”

While producing this film gave Giddings an awareness of previous legislative actions — such as the legalization of same-sex marriage — and passionate LGBT protests, he said there is still quite a bit of work to be done.

While conducting research for “The Gayborhood,” Giddings learned the trans community did not feel as represented as other members of the LGBT community. This inspired the student to begin work on a separate documentary focusing on trans people and how they view the Gayborhood.

“I thought that was really interesting, seeing as a lot of the leaders of Stonewall were trans women,” Giddings said. “So it feels kind of weird and disheartening as a trans person myself to see that our history is being downgraded. So we’re going to talk a lot about how trans people have helped in the queer-rights movement.”

To view “The Gayborhood” in its entirety, go here: