In the 1970s, Dr. Julianne Imperato-McGinley traveled to a remote part of the Dominican Republic where little girls were transforming into boys around the time they reached puberty. Called guevedoces, which translates into “penis at 12,” children who were considered to be born female would develop a penis and testicles during their pre-teen years.
The BBC reports, when we are conceived in the womb, female children have a pair of X chromosomes and males have XY chromosomes. During the first few weeks of development, a fetus is neither sex, but by the eighth week, its sex hormones develop. The Y chromosome of males develop the gonads, which eventually become testicles. The chromosome also delivers testosterone to the genital tubercle which converts testosterone into dihydrotestosterone. This turns the tubercle into a penis. Females don’t produce dihydrotestosterone. Therefore, their tubercle becomes a clitoris.
However, males who are labeled as guevedoces are deficient in the 5-alpha-reductase enzyme which helps convert testosterone into dihydrotestosterone, therefore making them appear as a female when they are born. When they reach puberty and their testosterone begins to surge at high levels, the bodies of guevedoces begin to develop muscles, testes, and their penis descends. An in-depth investigation on this hormone disorder has been featured in the BBC’s two-part documentary series, Countdown to Life. Dr. Michael Mosley, who helped create the series, studied guevedoces in the 1980s. In an interview, he revealed to VICE how gender is not only influenced by one’s culture but by a person’s genetics and hormones. In the highlights below, Dr. Mosley shared how people in the Dominican Republic react to those who are guevedoces, how bodies and hormones develop during pregnancies, and how children cope with such unusual bodily changes during puberty.
VICE: How did you first hear about the guevedoces?
Dr. Michael Mosley: I actually came across them when I was at medical school in the 1980s. The guevedoces were first identified by a researcher from Cornell in the 1970s. I remember hearing a talk and thinking, That is amazing! Can it possibly be true? I fancied the idea of making a documentary but never found a reason. For this series I said, “We have to do it.” It’s such a fascinating story.
Does this phenomenon only occur in the Dominican Republic?
Other groups have been identified around the world. The thing about the people in the Dominican Republic is that they are very accepting, whereas in other groups these people are regarded as abnormal and badly treated. In the Dominican Republic the attitude is very much, “Hey ho, sometimes girls turn into boys. That’s the way things go.” It’s remarkable how tolerant they are.
How do these children tend to cope with the change?
Quite often they have seen it in a cousin or something. It occurs in a relatively small number of families and in about one in 90 children, so they know it might happen. Quite often you have early signs. The mums say things like, ‘She was always a bit tomboy-ish.’ Still, they get teased. One of the boys could see why his schoolmates were a bit surprised when he went from being a girl one day to a boy the next. But on the whole there’s a lot of acceptance.
In the documentary, you see the families treat the children as girls right up until the point where they start to look like boys, even when they know the change is coming.
Completely. In some cases, they decide to remain girls. They go off and have plastic surgery. They say, “What the hell, I’ve been a girl this long, I’ll keep being a girl.” We primarily interviewed people who had decided they were a boy and that’s how they wanted to be. But I was aware of an aunt of one of the children we interviewed, who had decided she wanted to stay female.
Do you think the guevedoces can tell us anything about how we see gender in our society?
What it shows is how unbelievably complex it is. One of the things we explored in a later case is transgender children—boys who are convinced they are girls from an early age, and vice versa. I do think there is something genetic that happens in the womb for these kind of things and it’s not an obvious voluntary or social thing. It used to be that people would think that this was somehow a kind of mistake and you could tell them they were being foolish, but the evidence is very, very clear. When you take a child who is transgender and try to force them to stay as they are, this leads to very high rates of suicide. People are born with different urges. We can’t just try to ignore that and pretend we are all the same and live according to a straightforward and obvious gender rule.