Controversy. Accusations and counter-accusations. A dramatic walk. High-profile player withdrawing in protest. This week another women’s sport has been embroiled in controversy and division over the inclusion of transgender competitors.
Admittedly, few of us haven’t heard of a professional women’s pool league before. But since two of Norwich’s biggest expats have publicly refused to play against trans women, this hitherto unheralded game has been unexpectedly exposed to media blunders.
“It’s important to understand that this is not an attack on anyone, this is a defense,” says Alexandra Cunha, who is ranked fifth in the world in English swimming and a 14-time national champion. “This is me defending what I know to be fair and there is no fairness in letting biological men play in women’s league.”
We meet in her pin-neat modern townhouse on the edge of the city, where a pool table takes pride of place in the open-plan living area and a generous handful of gleaming trophies are arranged over three shelves.
The other 200, found during her 32-year career, are in her sister’s house back in Cunha’s native Portugal. When she’s not doing weights in the gym five times a week, or meeting fellow players at the pool, this is where Cunha, a divorced driving instructor, applies her technique.
“The pool is everything to me,” she says. “I fell in love with him in Lisbon when I was 17 and spent years fighting against men to be allowed to play against other women on a level playing field. Now I feel like I have to go into battle again.
“But this is not about me, it’s not even about a swimming pool. It’s about how women’s sport is under siege from transgender players who were born male and have all the advantages that enable them to dominate biological women.”
A smart shepherd with a degree in educational science and a sharp sense of humor, Cunha, who is only 5ft 2 in height, describes herself as “Feisty Lidina”. She has lived in Britain for 11 years but is still captain of the Portuguese women’s team.
“Back when I was a teenager I had no money to play with so I would sit on a chair all day and watch, for hours and hours. When I took a tip, the men would shout at me that they were not welcome and that I should go home and do laundry,” she recalls.
“Within five years I could beat them all. I still play men, but in open categories. I won’t play against anyone with an Adam’s apple in the women’s category.”
Women’s pool is just the latest sport to fall foul of a transgender military lobby that has encouraged players who are biologically male to compete against women on the grounds that 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 regarding the participation of transgender players in women’s competitions.
First, in August, with an increase in trans players disrupting play in women’s tournaments, the WEPF had issued a joint statement with its main sponsor, the Ultimate Pool Group, ruling that ” these events are open exclusively to individuals born women. “.
But just eight weeks later there was a shocking reversal of this decision, which some female players suggested was done under pressure from legal threats from trans rivals. The WEPF and Ultimate Pool released 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, and retain the right to test players’ testosterone levels.
Within a week of this announcement more than 60 professional pool players came together via 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 in the women’s league and would instead remain in her seat.
“I naively thought they would talk to me – instead I just got a request for my bank details so they could refund my 2024 fee,” she says. “It was scary. I felt angry but also sad that things have 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, pledged to do the same. As luck would have it two weeks ago she drew against successful transgender player Harriet Haynes in the final of the national Women’s Champions tournament in Denbighshire, Wales.
Pinches, who also lives in Norwich, refused to play and instead shook Haynes’ hand and walked out of the packed auditorium, forfeiting the game. She cried all night. The story went global.
“I’m so proud of Lynne,” says Cunha. “She’s not as tall as I am and it was only her fourth final ever 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 through her lawyers pointing out that the International Olympic Committee classifies cue sports such as pool, billiards and snooker and is not influenced by gender, adding: “The entire objection in time is around. What the weekend has done is show that bigotry is alive and well and that there is a lot of misinformation about the situation.”
According to Cunha, there is a huge misconception about the “multiple” advantages that male-born players hold. She admits she herself had no idea of the big difference until she watched transgender players in the women’s league.
“At first, I thought it wasn’t much but then when you see the better strength, the muscles, the muscle memory, the difference becomes obvious,” she says. “Players born male have longer arms and longer range; in 32 years I have never seen any biological woman who had anything like the power and velocity when it comes to the shot break.
“When you get to a certain level of play, the way you break is the key to success. Biological women also have other issues that affect us; hormonal fluctuations and menopause have a tangible impact but that’s okay when you’re competing with your peers. We laugh about it. Transgender players face none of those obstacles.”
Former Olympic swimmer Sharron Davies is among those who have criticized the way sports bodies have agreed – some would say they were collapsing – in the face of strong demands to allow trans women to take part in women’s categories.
She said the decision to allow trans players to play in women’s pool competitions was “heartbreaking”. “Swimming is a male dominated sport, like many others, and these women have worked hard to find their own journey,” she said.
“These organizations know that sex affects their game. They know that women need their own competitions to increase women’s participation and opportunities. They must show courage and decency and stand up for women.”
But both courage and decency are a hotly contested battleground. Cunha repeatedly expresses that she has nothing but compassion and respect for those born male or female who feel they must transition in order to live a happy life. But she will not accept transgender players who participate in female-only tournaments.
“We need to resolve this fairly and clearly,” she says. “This will not go away and a sensible approach is urgently needed. I am delighted that Sharron Davies is supporting us. I haven’t spoken to her yet but I hope to in the future.
“I’m not advocating for a minute that trans women play in the men’s game, we need a new category, whether that’s mixed or open or whatever it’s called.”
Although Cunha, Pinches and other female players will not be playing in the Ultimate Pool League next year, their rival, the International Pool Association, has stepped in.
After contacting Cunha to let him know he was creating a new Transgender section in 2024 “and beyond” for transgender players, he has confirmed as much on his website.
“I am relieved and happy that female players can now play in a fair,” says Cunha. “But why do women have to struggle again and again in every sport just to defend their own rights?
“Since this all blew up, do you know how much abuse I’ve gotten on social media? Nothing. After Lynne walked away from the table, people congratulated her. Every time we set foot in our pool hall we are supported. That should tell governing bodies everywhere that they know public opinion.”