Planet Earth is a big, wonderful and mysterious place. There are parts of the Earth where people are still isolated from technology and from the rest of the world. Only through accidents and sheer luck do we learn of such mysteries. One such mystery starts in a small remote village known as Las Salinas in the Dominican Republic. In the village, some male children are born looking like girls and only grow penises at puberty due to rare genetic disorder. One in 90 children born in Salinas grows a penis in a natural transformation from female to male. Known as the guevedoces, which translates to “penis at 12”, these youngsters are referred to in medical terms as “pseudohermaphrodites”. Here’s an unusual story about guevedoces, who were the main reason for the development of a blockbuster drug that has helped millions of people.
Being guevedoces or pseudohermaphrodites in Salinas is so common that it is accepted as a third sex, alongside male and female.
Catherine and his cousin Carla, Guevedoces in the Dominican Republic:
The phenomenon is explored in a BBC2 series called Countdown to Life – the Extraordinary Making of You. The series focuses on how our prenatal development shapes our lives, and also brought new attention to a group of seemingly sex-swapping people in the Dominican Republic.
Guevedoces is a condition that occurs as a result of an enzyme deficiency. Because of this rare deficiency, they are genetically male and have Y chromosomes in all of their cells. One of the first people to study this unusual condition was Dr Julianne Imperato-McGinley, from Cornell Medical College in New York. During the 1970’s, she made her way to this remote part of the Dominican Republic, drawn by extraordinary reports of girls turning into boys.
The BBC2 series also met some of the guevedoces and their families.
While filming, they met Johnny, 24, who is physically and biologically male but was once known as Felicitia:
Johnny, before his natural transformation, was known as Felicita. He was born as a girl but developed into a boy at the age of seven.
“I remember I used to wear a little red dress. I was born at home instead of in a hospital. They didn’t know what sex I was. I went to school and I used to wear my skirt. I never liked to dress as a girl. When they bought me girls toys I never bothered playing with them. All I wanted to do was play with the boys. They used to say I was a devil, nasty things, bad words and I had no choice but to fight them because they were crossing the line.” – Johnny
The genetic disorder is caused by a missing enzyme which prevents the production of the male sex hormone dihydrotestosterone in the womb.
At puberty, the testosterone starts flowing through their bodies, causing their voices to change and the growth of the male sexual reproductive organ. When this process begins, they officially become a male and are also recognized as a male by the society.
Dr. Michael Mosley, a BBC presenter, traveled to the Dominican Republic to meet the ‘guevedoce’ males.
According to him,
“Guevedoces are also sometimes called ‘machihembras’ meaning ‘first a woman, then a man.’ When they’re born they look like girls with no testes and what appears to be a vagina. It is only when they near puberty that the penis grows and testicles descend.”
After conception, the child will normally have a pair of X chromosomes if they are to become a girl, and a set of XY chromosomes if they are destined to be male. For the first weeks of life in the womb, they are neither; though in both sexes, nipples start to grow. Around eight weeks, the sex hormones start working.
After several years of research and careful observation, it was discovered that the Guevedoces are deficient in an enzyme called 5-alpha-reductase, which normally converts testosterone into dihydrotestosterone. The deficiency is genetic and is rare in other parts of the world. The 1974 study also led to the discovery of finasteride, a urinary retention medication that can treat enlarged prostates (benign prostatic hyperplasia) and can also treat hair loss in men.
Johnny, since he developed male genitalia, has had a number of short term girlfriends and is still looking for the woman of his dreams.
“I’d like to get married and have children, a partner who will stand by me through good and bad.”