A Revealing Look At Human Rights Violations In Sport in New Documentary ‘Category:Woman’

‘Category: Woman’ poster, featuring athlete Eva Makena looking out at the hills of Ngong, Kenya. Image by Proximity Films.

What defines a woman? Who gets to decide on that definition? These questions are as controversial as they are dehumanizing, especially given the current landscape of gender discrimination we are seeing. With an increase in bills that seek to discriminate against trans people, to the constant scrutiny of athletes from the high school level all the way up to professional leagues, it is clear more has to be done to push back against outdated and dehumanizing narratives, that can end up becoming laws if we don’t speak out.

A new documentary, released on Canadian broadcast TV on March 8, International Women’s Day, seeks to expose just how ugly the gender wars are for female athletes, and most notably, Black and Brown female athletes. From award-winning Canadian filmmaker and former athlete who has experienced gender discrimination herself, Phyllis Ellis brings the timely ‘Category: Woman’ documentary to the world, taking a look at a major human rights violation in sports.

‘Category: Woman’ delivers a damning exploration of “sex testing,” a deceptive and harmful practice in international women’s sport, that has for over 80 years sabotaged the careers and impacted thousands of international female athletes, notably women of color. 

“How do you castigate a [group] of persons as insufficiently human?” asks the jaw-dropping documentary feature. “By throwing their gender into doubt.”

The film profiles, among others, Caster Semenya, an Olympic champion runner from South Africa whose success prompted the IAAF (now World Athletics) to wage an investigative assault challenging her championship and leaking her medical records to the international media, resulting in the staggering and insulting headlines around the world that she was a “biological man.” Ms Semenya was only 18 years old.

‘Category: Woman’ is bolstered with footage that underscores – to infuriating effect – the unrepentant racism and misogyny that many high-performance female athletes have suffered with career ending results and horrific medical procedures. In addition to Semenya, Phyllis introduces Ugandan champion Annet Negesa, who is the first female athlete in the world to speak publicly about an invasive, career-ending surgery (encouraged by international sport officials) a gonadectomy to reduce her naturally occurring higher testosterone and a clitoridectomy, a cosmetic procedure that had nothing to do with sport at all. Annet never competed again. She fights to defend this gross violation of her human rights.

Director Phyllis Ellis

Following her award-winning, Emmy-nominated film, ‘Toxic Beauty’, Phyllis exposes once again, an industry controlled by men putting women’s lives at risk through racist regulations, gender discrimination and human rights violations. Sex-testing remains, although in a more nefarious way, and continues under the guise of fair play. 

‘Category: Woman’ tracks the devastating medical, social, cultural, emotional and economic impact that such rulings can have on the lives and careers of female athletes from the Global South. Phyllis also lends her own story to the conversation, encouraging all athletes to stand in solidarity with athletes from the Global South, to create a sporting world free of sexual, physical and psychological abuse, sex testing, misogyny, racism and gender discrimination. In 1985, Phyllis left her sport of field hockey, not only as an athlete but as Vice Chair of the Athlete’s Advisory Council for the Canadian Olympic Association, (COC) – the physical and sexual abuse, and abuse of power, intolerable. Now, 40-years later as a filmmaker, she is deeply immersed and back on the inside of international sport as witness to the courage of the champions in ‘Category: Women.’

In an interview before the film’s release, Phyllis shared more about her own experience, what is at stake for everyone when we begin to question or “investigate” a person’s gender, and what she hopes this documentary will encourage people to think about amidst the landscape of heightened conversations and regulations around gender identity.

Before becoming a filmmaker, you were a professional athlete in Canada. How did your experience in sports inform the decision to make “Category: Woman”?

I hesitated at first because I wasn’t certain I wanted to go back into the sport world in my work as a filmmaker.  It seemed like a closed door, actually a door I had slammed many years ago. But I had followed the true glory and horror of what had happened to Caster Semenya and had the great privilege, of meeting Dr. Payoshni Mitra, the athlete activist in the film. Once she introduced me to the athletes, I knew I was committed and now we have a film.

What made you want to become a filmmaker after retiring from professional sports? 

It was a winding road for sure. I had started as an actor in theatre and through twists and turns I ended up behind the camera and loved looking at the world from that perspective. It’s interesting though.  There are similar dynamics of performance, pressure, collaboration, teamwork, goal setting, outcomes, pain in both so it actually was an easier transition than one would think.

Indian athlete Dutee Chand.

This new documentary couldn’t be more timely, given the increased focus on gender identification in especially women’s and girls’ sports. What has been the reaction to the film from audiences so far? 

Remarkably amazing. You never know when you are in the middle of it and you don’t want to be behind the story, so yes, it is an amazing time for the film to be released with bodily autonomy, inclusion and human rights for women in sport to be at the forefront of conversations in the main now. Not to mention the focused and very critical movement toward safe sport, not a level playing field but a safe and equal playing field and to do no harm.

How did you initially approach the featured athletes and how did they react to your request to share their experience on screen? 

My path was through Dr. Mitra who had been working very closely supporting athletes from all over the world. I had meetings with them over whatapp because we are all so far away from one another. It’s also a great question because my lived experience coming from North America with all of our advantages it would seem that there would be great distance in that way too, but as soon as we were in front of each other, the common ground was the understanding of sacrifice, the pure love of sport, and the kind of duplicitous nature of being a champion and whatever trauma one experiences. 

As a filmmaker I was cautious, respectful, only listened and followed their lead and did my best to create the space for their voices to be heard.

Athlete Annet Negesa. Image by Proximity Films.

The idea that a person’s gender can be under question, and be potentially determined by an authoritative body of people is truly mind-blowing. How does it make you feel as a former athlete and filmmaker to see these athletes being treated this way? 

Both angry and sad and with the greatest impulse to contribute in whatever way I can. To use this platform and to be an ally. To stand with these women in solidarity.

In the US we recently saw conservative lawmakers try to question a prospective Supreme Court Justice to define “woman” as a way to bait her into a larger debate that is happening around gender. How does public discourse like this create a dangerous landscape for people like the athletes featured in your film? 

Gender cannot be questioned or determined by someone else, it is personal to each of us. As the experts say in the film, why it is dangerous and can be life threatening is the deep gender-based racism that is at the forefront. Like Dr. Zine Magubane narrates in the film, “Some bodies are marked. Bodies that are Black, and Brown and female have a particular type of marking. They are marked as insufficiently human. How do you castigate a category of people as insufficiently human? By throwing their gender into doubt.” I can’t really say it better than that.

One of the experts in your film talked about an instance where, to determine whether athletes were actually “female”, the women were made to take their clothes off as a type of inspection. Can you speak to the degrading, dehumanization that happens in the process of questioning someone’s gender? 

Sex, gender, femininity testing has been happening to only women athletes for over 80 years. And for a long time from 1968 – 2000, all women in all sports at all Olympic Games were sex tested. I was sex tested. In 1966 the test was a nude parade, where women athlete’s literally paraded in front of doctors and they looked and ‘inspected’ them to assure they were women. That morphed into other forms of sex testing for years. Now, yes, when an athlete is suspected or targeted especially in African countries, they are still physically inspected and also other invasive testing. And it is happening today as I write this, even in other sports not just Athletics.

Annet Negesa (center) 2011 running African Games. Image by Mohammad Shallie.

How do you hope your film will speak to the current battles happening in sports, and in society with regard to gender? 

The great thing about films is they place a lot of incredible people who are focused on issues as well as the individuals who are most impacted into one place. It happened to them, and the experts and advocates have been working at this for years.  But a film like this can become one of the tools and advocate for change. I hope we can contribute to this and change will come. I hope that athletes who are targeted by these regulations will feel supported in all the ways they need and should be supported.

How do you hope ‘Category: Woman’ will empower more athletes, and more individuals, to speak up for their own autonomy and human rights? 

I would say it is Annet Negesa, Margaret Wambui, Eva Makena, Dutee Chand and the story of Caster Semenya all who empower athletes and stakeholders. Whistleblowers, speaking out, making their voices heard, and people are listening.

The film’s message, the athletes’ message, is about informed consent, and that athletes can say no. No is a complete sentence, not a negotiation. 

To find out where you can watch ‘Category:Woman’, click HERE. Stay up to date with news about screenings by following the film on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter.

Eva Makena close up, in the starting blocks – Ngong, Kenya. Image by Proximity Films.

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