Imagine dedicating your life to sports. Imagine the hours of training and commitment invested in such a focused and competitive world. Imagine then, being scrutinized because you are not considered woman enough? In a new documentary titled ‘Category: Woman’, filmmaker Phyllis Ellis opens our eyes to a controversial gender debate. It forces us to ask HOW the heck did this all happen?

Her film will be screening at this year’s Hot Docs Film Festival (April 28-May 8).

International sport governing bodies rule that ‘identified’ female athletes must medically alter their healthy bodies, under the guise of fair play. Four champion runners from the Global South, fight back. They fight racism, the policing of women’s bodies in sport and the violation of their human rights.

When 18-year old South African runner Caster Semenya burst onto the world stage in 2009, her championship was not celebrated. Marred by doubt, her personal medical records were leaked to the international media. Public scrutiny of her body, driven by racism and sexism, questioned her most fundamental right. She was forced to defend who she was and fight against who she was told she should be.

The International Amateur Athletics Federation ruled that ‘identified’ female athletes must medically alter their healthy bodies in order to compete. Now called World Athletics, they deemed naturally high androgen levels were a performance advantage.

Category: Woman focuses on four athletes, from the Global South forced out of competition by these regulations. We see the devastation to their bodies, and lives. Equally arresting is their passion for sports further emboldened by their conviction to stand up for their human rights. Phyllis Ellis follows up on her award-winning film Toxic Beauty.  She exposes an industry controlled by men who put women’s lives at risk. This policing of women’s bodies in sport remains, in a more nefarious way, under the guise of fair play. (Synopsis provided)

We had the chance to speak with Ellis more about this film…

What was the breaking point for you to decide to bring attention to women in sports in this light?

Ellis: Breaking point is an interesting starting point, I think it might be more breaking through. My own attachment and experiences as an Olympian but also awareness that my lived experience as a female identified person in sport was very different in so many ways from the women in the film. I think it was the great privilege of meeting Dr. Payoshni Mitra and her willingness to invite the athletes and provide a space for them to speak out, although, as so much work, years of work had begun in this story before we began.

The women featured in the documentary, what was their reaction when you wanted to share their stories?

Ellis: It was a combination of women who had stepped forward and women who had not spoken publicly about their experiences. However, in both cases, they were very prepared to speak out, in their truth. It is a different perspective for example with an athlete like Dutee Chand, who was looking back on her experiences in 2014 and yet she engages and speaks out in support of other athletes who are in the middle of their struggle. And then Annet Negesa, who, when we met her, she had only days before came forward with her story, and really was the first athlete, as Dr. Payoshni Mitra says in the film, to speak publicly about having surgery in order to compete.

What do they hope for now?

Ellis: It would be of course best to ask the athlete’s themselves, but what we glean from all of their conversations and those of the activists and experts is inclusion, prevention of harm, nondiscrimination and primacy to bodily autonomy.

The film talks about women in sports and their expected (and often regulated) appearances. Can you tell us from your experience as an athlete how you were trained to overcome the criticisms?

Ellis: Well, as a young person, navigating the world, as a female identified athlete, in the late 70’s and early 80’s was an interesting proposition. A loaded question actually, when one thinks in terms of social, cultural, economic and political landscapes at different times. Stories are never what they seem on the surface and they always involve more stories. For me personally, my gender or sex was not publicly or private challenged in the damaging ways that some of my fellow athletes experienced but as a young woman, I was acutely aware of the policing of our bodies and questioned the value and integrity of what a gender verification test meant.

I was trained by my mother to overcome any criticism, I was trained by remarkable women who fought for our right to play, and I was trained by some of the greatest women athletes whose journey was far more challenging than my own.

We think about the term “gaslighting” now everywhere — how does that play in the world of sports?

Ellis: It’s great how you pulled such a ‘now’ word into this space and the meaning of the word. It’s funny, I got a little ‘triggered’ (another now word) by the question. In spending time with and listening, stepping out of the way to create space for these women’s experiences, it gestures to the notion, from what they all communicated, of being publicly humiliated, personal medical records exposed internationally, shunned and shamed by their communities, afraid, their careers ending abruptly, and often with no immediate support or after care all in sport. I think we need a new word for gaslighting.

As Dr. Myron Genel, one of the leaders in this space for over 30 years said to us in interview “I think we’ve lost track of what this is all about, this is sport, it’s not life and death and the intensity with which some of this, some of this is argued I think is baffling. It’s still sport, we’re still talking about sport and we’re talking about what is appropriate and what is not appropriate. I guess sport has become a surrogate for some, a lot of other parts of our contentious society, no, I’m afraid, I’m afraid not, it’ll continue.

In the past few years that so much is coming into the forefront with the mental health and health of athletes. Are you noticing any changes?

Ellis: One of the spaces films sit is often having the ability to pull a lot of information into one space. The tireless work of advocates, activists, experts, the scientists and all have been working to create a ‘safer’ space, a safer place for athletes to compete. That is what fair play actually is. I see through the learning and spending time again close to sport, because I distanced myself a long time ago, that change is coming.

What can we do now?

Ellis: Be aware and respectful of human rights in every arena.

Anything else you wish us to share?

Ellis: Thanks for having me into this forum to share a bit about the film. And inclusion is the only way forward.

Big thanks to Phyllis Ellis for taking the time to speak with us and for creating this eye-opening film for us to further discuss these issues.