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The Dominican Village Where Some Children Only Grow Penises at Puberty

Physical changes during puberty are completely normal, but in Salinas, a remote village in the southwestern Dominican Republic, they are downright extreme. For some of the boys living here puberty is the time they actually grow a penis. Many of the children are born without male genitalia and are raised as girls, but they eventually become men in their teenage years. The phenomenon is so familiar to the people of Salinas that the children – called ‘guevedoces’ (penis at 12) – are not considered abnormal at all.

The condition is apparently the result of a rare genetic disorder that occurs due to a missing enzyme. This prevents the production of dihydro-testosterone – a type of male hormone – when the baby is in the womb. All fetuses have internal glands called gonads and a small bump between their legs called tubercle. At around eight weeks, the enzyme 5-α-reductase triggers a huge surge of dihydro-testosterone in male fetuses, converting the tubercle into a penis. In female fetuses, the tubercle becomes a clitoris. But in many babies born to Salinas women, the enzyme is missing entirely.

So these babies are born with the tubercle intact and no testes, and are often mistaken for female babies. It isn’t until they reach puberty that another surge of testosterone is produced, which is when the male reproductive organs are formed. As their voices deepen, their penises begin to emerge as well.

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Photo: BBC

Around 1 in every 90 children in Salinas are born guevedoces, and even after they finally become male (usually between 7 and 12 years old) subtle differences do exist even in adulthood. Most guevadoces have less facial hair and smaller prostate glands than the average man. However, their condition is accepted by the community and some even keep their female names, like Catherine, a young guevadoce who recently became a boy.

24-year-old Johnny is one of the many Salinas youth who grew up as girls. He was originally named Feleticia by his parents. “I remember I used to wear a little red dress,” he said. “I was born at home instead of the hospital. They didn’t know what sex I was.” But Johnny insists that he has always been a boy at heart. “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.”

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Photo: BBC

So when his reproductive organs kicked in at age 7, Johnny was quite relieved. “When I changed I was happy with my life,” he said.

Although they’ve been around for as long as anyone in Salinas can remember, guevedoces were officially discovered only in the 1970s, by Cornell University endocrinologist Dr. Julianne Imperato. She traveled to the Dominican republic after hearing strange rumors of girls turning into boys, and eventually found out they were true. Since then, several studies have been conducted to learn about the condition, which according to scientists, is perfectly natural. The kids, now medically referred to as pseudohermaphrodites, are to be featured in a new BBC2 series called Countdown to Life.

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Photo: BBC

According to BBC host Dr. Michael Mosley, guevedoces are also 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,” he explained. “It is only when they are near puberty that the penis grows and testicles descend.”

“I hated going through puberty; voice cracking, swinging moods, older brother laughing at me,” he recalled. “But compared to Johnny, I had it easy.”

 

The discovery of the guevedoces has apparently been very helpful to many men around the world. When they learned about the condition, pharmaceutical companies created a drug called finasteride, which blocked the action of 5-α-reductase. “It is now widely used to treat benign enlargement of the prostate and male pattern baldness,” Dr. Moseley said. “For which, I’m sure, many men are truly grateful.”

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