For decades now, there have been reports about young girls growing penises and turning to boys in a tiny Caribbean village.
In the isolated village of Salinas, located in the south west of the Dominican Republic, it is estimated that 1 out of every 90 girls transition to a boy by the time they turn 12. A report in the UK’s Telegraph says the condition is so prevalent there that it is no longer considered abnormal and the children are simply referred to as the ‘guevedoces’ – which literally translates as ‘penis at 12’.
A new BBC2 series “Countdown to Life – the extraordinary making of you” explores the rare genetic condition behind the transformation.
The program interviews Johnny, a guevedoces who was brought up as a girl by his parents. Now 24, he was originally named Felecita but he started developing male features and began transitioning to a boy at the age of 7.
“I remember I used to wear a little red dress,” he said. “I was born at home instead of in a hospital. They didn’t know what sex I was.
He said he was happy and satisfied with his new life as a man.
“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.”
“When I changed I was happy with my life,” he said.
The guevedoces were first studied by Dr. Julianne Imperato, an endocrinologist from Cornell University who travelled to the Dominican Republic in the 1970’s after hearing extraordinary accounts about girls turning into boys.
On further investigation, Dr. Imperato discovered that the male genitalia was absent in guevedoces at birth because they are deficient in an enzyme called 5-α-reductase, which normally converts testosterone into dihydro-testosterone.
So they appear to be born female with no testes and what appears to be a vagina. Then at puberty, a huge surge of testosterone is produced, and the male reproductive organs finally emerge. What should have happened in the womb happens around 12 years later. Their voices deepen and they finally grow a penis.
But even after transitioning to male, subtle differences continue into adulthood. Most guevedoces have smaller amounts of facial hair and prostate glands in comparison to the average male.
Experts believe the condition has persisted through generations in places like Salinas because of its relative isolation, and because the condition is so widespread and accepted, the Dominican Republic now believes that there are three sexual categories, male, female, and pseudohermaphrodite.