“Back when I was a teenager I had no money to play so I would sit on a chair all day and just watch, for hours and hours. When I did pick up a cue, the men would shout at me that I wasn’t welcome and that I should go home and do some laundry,” she recalls.
“Within five years I could beat them all. I still play men, but in open categories. I will not play against anyone who has an Adam’s apple in a female category.”
Women’s pool is just the latest sport to have fallen foul of a militant transgender lobby that has pushed for players who are biologically male to compete against women on the grounds they “identify” as female.
The controversy began on October 24 when the sport’s international governing body, the World Eightball Pool Federation (WEPF), changed the rules over trans players’ participation in female tournaments.
Initially, in August, with increasing numbers of trans players applying to play in women’s tournaments, the WEPF had put out a joint statement with its main sponsor the Ultimate Pool Group, ruling that “these events will be exclusively open to individuals who are born female”.
But just eight weeks later there was a shock reversal in this decision, which a number of women players have suggested was made under pressure of legal threats from trans competitors. The WEPF and Ultimate Pool issued an update on “competition eligibility for transgender and non-binary players” stating that there would be no discrimination on the grounds of gender identity and that they would operate a gender “self-identification policy” for competitors, while reserving the right to test players’ testosterone levels.
Within a week of this announcement more than 60 professional female pool players joined forces through a WhatsApp support group to oppose the change. And in Norwich, Cunha – a huge name in the sport – immediately contacted the Ultimate Pool Group to say she would not play against anyone born male in the women’s league and would instead remain in her seat.
“I naively thought they would speak to me – instead all I got was a request for my bank details so they could return my 2024 fee,” she says. “It was shocking. I felt angry but also sad that things had come to this in the sport I love.”
After Cunha announced her stand, her close friend Lynne Pinches, 50, sister of established snooker player Barry Pinches, vowed to do the same. As chance would have it two weeks ago she drew against Harriet Haynes, a hugely successful transgender player, in the final of the Ladies Champion of Champions national tournament in Denbighshire, Wales.
Pinches, who also lives in Norwich, declined to play and instead shook Haynes’s hand and walked out of the packed playing hall, forfeiting the match. She cried all night. The story went global.
“I’m so proud of Lynne,” says Cunha. “She’s not ranked as high as I am and it was only her fourth ever final so it was a huge sacrifice but we all believe it was worth it. Some principles are worth more than money, titles or trophies.”
For her part, Haynes issued a statement via her lawyers pointing out that cue sports such as pool, billiards and snooker are classed as “precision sports” by the International Olympic Committee and are thus unaffected by gender, adding: “All the protest this past weekend has done is to show that bigotry is alive and well and that misinformation regarding the situation has run rife.”
According to Cunha, there is a huge misapprehension about the “multiple” advantages that players born male retain. She freely admits she herself had no idea about the huge differential until she watched trans players in the women’s league.
“At first I thought it was no big deal but then when you see the superior strength, the muscles, the muscle memory, the difference becomes clear,” she says. “Players born male have longer arms and a longer range; in 32 years I have never witnessed any biological woman with anything like the power and velocity when it comes to the break shot.
“When you get to a certain level of play, how you break is the key to success. Biological women have other issues too that affect us; hormonal fluctuations and the menopause have a tangible impact but that’s fine when you are competing against your peers. We laugh about it. Trans players don’t face any of those hurdles.”