Normally, to determine the sex of a baby, all a parent has to do is look between the child’s legs.
In southern Dominican Republic though, it’s not always that easy. In an isolated village known as Salinas, babies who appear to be girls at birth suddenly develop male organs around age 12. Locals call these kids “machihembras,” and it’s become such a common phenomenon that nobody who lives there even considers it abnormal anymore.
One of them, a boy named Johnny, recently told his story to the National Post. Not too long ago his name was Felecitia.
“I remember I used to wear a little red dress,” he said. “I was born at home instead of in a hospital. They didn’t know what sex I was. I went to school and I used to wear my skirt. 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.”
Then suddenly, at age 7, boom — testicles and a penis (we’re exaggerating, but they appear relatively quickly).
So what in the world is happening, you ask?
The case described above is the result of a rare genetic disorder that occurs because of a missing enzyme, which prevents the formation of male sex hormone dihydro-testosterone from being produced in the womb. Normally, this hormone would help facilitate the creation of a penis in children who carry the Y chromosome while they’re still inside their pregnant mother.
Without that hormone, what should’ve happened in the womb happens around 12 years later, when another surge of testosterone makes its way through the body during puberty.
Because it’s so common in Salinas (about 1 in 90 people), many of the boys who discover their male genitals later in life opt not to change their female names. In other words, you would be able to find men in this village with names like Christina.
The condition was first discovered by Dr. Julianne Imperato, endocrinologist at Cornell University, in the 1970s. But it’s making the news again now because of a new BBC series titled “Countdown To Life — The Extraordinary Making of You,” which will chronicle stories like Johnny’s.
The condition is thought to persist in Salinas because of the isolation of the villagers. Sure is good fodder for the nature vs. nurture debate, wouldn’t you say?