It sounds like the plot of a “Twilight Zone” episode, an Ursula K. Le Guin story, or the Pulitzer Prize winning 2002 novel “Middlesex”: There’s a place where, when girls hit puberty, they turn into boys. Such a plot would prove rich territory — or a landmine — for anyone interested in how gender and sexuality develop.
“Think of the scientific possibilities!” Slate wrote in 1997. “Finally, we could tease apart nature and nurture and see whether men and women differed because of how they were brought up as children.”
Yet, this place — Salinas, a small village in the Dominican Republic — actually exists. And though scientists have been aware of the genetic mutation that causes this curious condition for decades, the little-known, but extensively documented, story is the subject of a new BBC piece called “The Extraordinary Story of the Guevedoces.”
The translation of “guevedoce”: “penis at 12.”
“I never liked to dress as a girl and when they bought me toys for girls I never bothered playing with them,” Johnny, formerly Felicita, told the BBC. “When I saw a group of boys I would stop to play ball with them.”
Johnny is not alone. As first observed by a Cornell University researcher in the 1970s, one in about 90 children in and around Salinas are affected by the mutation, which leads to low levels of an enzyme called 5-α-reductase that typically spurs growth of the penis in utero. In guevedoces, this growth is delayed until puberty. And, after their transformation, many of the newly minted boys prove heterosexual.
“So the boys, despite having an XY chromosome, appear female when they are born,” the BBC explained. “At puberty, like other boys, they get a second surge of testosterone. This time the body does respond and they sprout muscles, testes and a penis.”
Some guevedoces are tormented — called “nasty things, bad words,” as one told the BBC.
“When she turned five I noticed that whenever she saw one of her male friends she wanted to fight with him,” the mother of Carla — “on the brink of changing into Carlos” at 7, as the BBC put it — said. “Her muscles and chest began growing. You could see she was going to be a boy.”
Though the case of the guevedoces, for some researchers, showed that nature is more important than nurture in directing sexuality, an American pharmaceutical company by the name of Merck took the research to an unexpected place. Guevedoces generally have small prostates. If 5-α-reductase could be blocked by a drug, could prostate growth in adult men be inhibited?
Yes, Merck decided. The company developed the drug finasteride, more commonly known as Propecia, now used to treat male pattern baldness and benign prostate growth.
Some men reported the drug had strange effects on their sex drive.
“I’d be with a sexy woman, and there was just no interest at all on my part,”one patient said in 2011. “If anything, it was almost like I felt mild repulsion.”
But the guevedoces were not just of interest to Big Pharma. In a 1998 report,the Hastings Center, devoted to ethical issues in medicine, discussed how the very concept of a third sex had changed the vocabulary and mindset of Salinas when it comes to gender.
“The sexually ambiguous child is born not into a world divided up into male and female, but into a world divided into male, female, and guevedoce,” the report read. “Different concepts, different facts of nature.”
“I love her however she is,” Carla’s mother told the BBC. “Girl or boy, it makes no difference.”
2012 Goddesschess Canadian Women's Closed Chess Championship
Hales Corners Chess Challenge XIX April 12, 2014 Milwaukee, WI Prizes for female players in Open and Reserve sections and paid entry to next HCCC for top female finisher in each section. This is Goddesschess' 12th HCCC!
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2013 U.S. Women's Chess Championship
Hales Corners Chess Challenge XVIII October 12, 2013 Milwaukee, WI Record prize money awarded to chess femmes - $800! In honor of National Chess Day and the one year anniversary of the passing of our webmaster, researcher and writer, Don McLean, additional prizes of $150 were awarded to the top two male finishers in each Section. Milwaukee Summer Challenge II June 15 - 16, 2013 Milwaukee, WI Prizes for the chess femmes and funding a best game prize
2013 U.S. Women's Chess Championship May, 2013 St. Louis, MO Goddesschess Fighting Spirit Award awarded to Anna Zatonskih Hales Corners Chess Challenge XVII April 13, 2013 Milwaukee, WI Goddesschess prizes totaled $540: $180 paid to female players in the Open $290 paid to female players in the Reserve $70 paid for the top female players' entry to Challenge XVIII in October, 2013
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2012 Milwaukee Summer Challenge July 14-15, 2012
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Hales Corners Challenge XV
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I'm one of the founders of Goddesschess, which went online May 6, 1999. I earned an under-graduate degree in history and economics going to college part-time nights, weekends and summer school while working full-time, and went on to earn a post-graduate degree (J.D.) I love the challenge of research, and spend my spare time reading and writing about my favorite subjects, travelling and working in my gardens. My family and my friends are most important in my life. For the second half of my life, I'm focusing on "doable" things to help local chess initiatives, starting in my own home town. And I'm experiencing a sort of personal "Renaissance" that is leaving me rather breathless...