In a small town in the Dominican Republic, some boys are born looking like girls and when they hit puberty their penis grows.
This extraordinary occurrence in the isolated village of Salinas, in the southwestern part of the Caribbean island, is highlighted in a new BBC Two series called “Countdown to Life – the extraordinary making of you.”
The show, premiering Monday, follows the story of Johnny, 24, who is known as a “Guevedoce” which literally translates to “penis at twelve.” In his town, the cases of little girls turning into boys are so common that it is no longer considered abnormal.
“I never liked to dress as a girl and when they bought me toys for girls I never bothered playing with them — when I saw a group of boys I would stop to play ball with them,” Johnny told BBC Two, adding that when he obviously became a male he was bullied and taunted.
He responded with his fists.
“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 said.
According to the BBC, “guevedoces” is a rare genetic disorder that happens because of a missing enzyme that prevents the production of a specific form of the male sex hormone, called dihydro-testosterone, in the womb.
It was first discovered by Cornell University endocrinologist Dr. Julianna Imperato in the 1970s when she travelled to the island after hearing rumors of girls turning into boys.
While in the womb, all babies – regardless of sex – have internal glands known as gonads and a small bump between their legs called a tubercle. At around eight weeks, the tubercle becomes a penis for babies who carry the Y chromosome after they start producing dihydro-testosterone. For females it becomes a clitoris.
However, “guevedoces” are missing the enzyme that triggers the hormone surge (while still carrying the Y chromosome) and are born female. When they hit puberty, another large dose of testosterone triggers the growth of male reproductive organs.
“When I changed I was happy with my life,” Johnny told the BBC.
A girl named Carla is currently also going through the transformation. She is nine and changing into Carlos.
“When she turned five I noticed that whenever she saw one of her male friends she wanted to fight with him. Her muscles and chest began growing,” Carla’s mother said in Spanish. “You could see she was going to be a boy. I love her however she is. Girl or boy, it makes no difference.”
Dr. Michael Mosely is following their stories closely for the BBC’s show.
“I hated going through puberty; voice cracking, swinging moods, older brother laughing at me. But compared to Johnny, I had it easy,” he said. “Guevedoces are also sometimes called ‘machihembras’ meaning ‘first a woman, then a man.’”
According to the BBC, Dr. Imperanto’s research was picked up by American pharmaceutical giant Merck, currently working on a drug called finasteride that mimics the lack of dihydro-testosterone seen in “guevedoces.”
Cases of “guevedoces” have been seen in the Sambian villages of Papua New Guinea, although they view the children as flawed males, while in the Dominican Republic the transformation is welcomed with widespread celebration.