The discovery of a small community in the Dominican Republic, where some children are born female and only grow penises at age 12 has thrown human biology as we know it into chaos. Some children with a rare genetic condition appear female at birth but later develop a penis and testes around the time puberty begins. But what causes this to happen?

Physiological sex is supposed to be an immutable biological law. Even if you’re born transgender, your body won’t catch up with your mind without some medical help. The idea that a girl could spontaneously turn into a boy is the stuff of sci-fi novels and cheap erotic fiction. Don’t tell that to the residents of Salinas in the Dominican Republic, though. Their children have been seeming to switch sex for as long as anyone can remember.

Unlike some cultures, where women can choose to live as men when they reach puberty but still retain their female bodies, the guevedoces change physiologically. In fact, guevedoce translates to “penis at 12.” This is because of a normally incredibly rare genetic mutation that affects 1 in 90 of the village’s children. It causes abnormally low levels of an enzyme known as 5-alpha-reductase, which is responsible for a penis growing while a male baby is in the womb. For the guevedoces, it doesn’t kick in until puberty.
That means that they’re born looking like girls. It’s only when they hit puberty that they suddenly grow a penis, testicles, and muscles. For some parents, it comes as a complete surprise.
Although we’ve known about the guevedoces since the 1970s, they’ve only recently become big news after pharmaceutical companies noticed that they all had small prostates. This observation has allowed the development of a drug that can treat male-pattern baldness and prostate problems. In short, this one village is full of sex-changing lifesavers. It seems that Mother Nature loves nothing more than to shake things up a bit.


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