"You have to learn to be a real person before you can learn to be a real man or a real woman."
Sophie Prell is one of few people who can say they've been all of the above.
Sophie - or Gaylen, as she was known through her high school years in Aurelia - was an active, involved boy, and still today she has fond memories of clowning around with her stepbrothers, the car rides to basketball games, proms, wearing the mascot costume for football games.
But one memory is very unlike those of all she grew up with - this boy's dawning realization that inside, he was not a boy at all.
Gaylen went on to Iowa State and more success, becoming among other things a playwright and well-read opinion columnist for the Iowa State Daily newspaper. But at ISU, after his freshman year, he also became Sophia, the identity he chose as he began to dress and act as a female. She was open about her transgender choice, and found herself as a lightning rod for controversy at times.
In one incident, a male student reacted to the announcement of a gathering for alternative lifestyle students by threatening to kill them, and came under investigation for writing that he hoped they would all die.
At times she was abused or discriminated against for her decision, but Sophie persevered. She graduated in December with a degree in journalism and an evolving talent as a writer, completing a sought-after internship in Los Angeles, and moved back to Iowa, slowly becoming established as a freelance journalist and specialist in video gaming journalism.
As she communicated madly, trying to build name recognition as a writer, she noticed that she habitually signed everything "Sincerely." Thus, her online persona has become Sincerely Sophie, which seems to suit her personality, she laughs.
Life still hasn't been all roses.
She was engaged to be married, but shortly after returning to Iowa, the relationship fell apart. Her fiance, a woman, left with bitter words for Sophie: "You will never be a woman. You will always be pretending."
Sophie, about to turn 25, went back to Ames, and spent some time contemplating the ex-fiance's words.
"When someone you planned to spend your life with says that to you, you are going to think. I tried to honestly evaluate. It has not been easy and I don't enjoy all of the problems my transformation has created, but I still am who I am."
She is not alone. Nearly 3 million people in the United States were genetically assigned a sex at birth and identify with a different gender.
After living as a woman for several years now, Sophie says she seldom now thinks about herself as having been a male. With her makeup and a dress on, nobody else does either.
In fact during her internship, a co-worker made an innocent joke about transgender people. Not offended, Sophie asked him what he would do if he ever met such a person. The man admitted that he didn't know. "What would you say if I told you that you've been sitting next to one for the past two months?" she said.
Like most young writers, the search for a career has kept her too busy to dwell on any other issues. She has particularly found a voice working part-time with Penny Arcade, a burgeoning national franchise that started as a simple web comic, and now dominates the video game technology press, runs its own national charity, publishes collectible trading cards, and hosts a massive expo for rabid gamers - an event that will draw a sold-out crowd of 70,000 people this season where Sophie will be among the speakers.
"It's a bit of a change, coming from the countryside of a town with what, 1,200 people?"
It is a town she seldom returns to these days.
She remembers her youth in Aurelia fondly enough, holding onto yearbooks that show her as an apparently typical teenage boy, though she recalls having conflicted feelings about her gender years before that. It is awkward trying to go back to her roots, she finds.
"Some people just don't like me very much, including some of my own relatives," she says. "When I walk down the street a lot of people I knew seem to not recognize me. Some of those who do will avoid me, cross to the other side of the street. Some just look away when they go by me."
There are others, however, who are friends regardless - they will go out of their way to greet her and they are sincere when they ask how she is.
Her parents have come to accept her simply as Sophie - their daughter - she says. The same person inside that she has always been. When her fiance left, they were the first to advise her to go on being herself.
While at Iowa State, Sophie became active in the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Ally (LGBTA) group. She wrote often about social equality and rights.
In some ways society has become more open since then, and in some, it has not, she says. "Personally, I've kind of dropped out of that. I still support the LGBTA individuals when I can, but it got really hard dealing with the political side of it - and there are some elements of the lesbian and gay agenda that I just didn't like or couldn't agree with. This will surprise a lot of people who have called me radical, but really I think of myself as a fairly conservative person."
One of Sophie's friends is also living as a transgendered woman, but is much more aggressive with it than Sophie feels comfortable with. Her friend has experienced some bad treatment from religious people, and so has become very angry in rejecting religion.
"I've had some similar experiences, but I don't ever want to become bitter. I try to keep an open mind and I think there is a legitimacy in maintaining relationships with the religious communities," Sophie says.
Changing her body into the female she has always felt she was inside is far more complicated than simply switching a wardrobe.
Hormones were prescribed, and came with considerable physical discomfort and an emotional roller coaster. She retrained her voice with great practice. She has undergone some surgeries, but still has "the big one" to go, she says. It comes with a price tag of $20,000 - a lot to save on a young writer's wages.
Facial feminization surgery is another option, but Sophie has so far not been moved to pursue that. While she feels at times that her features are still too masculine, "I've never been a believer in spending a lot of time worrying about how pretty you are."
She also knows that each surgery comes with risk. After one operation to shave down her Adam's apple to feminine proportion, she awoke with angry bruises running down most of her arm. During the surgery she had either partially come out of the anesthesia or fell into a dream state with nightmares. She started screaming, and ripped out her IV, causing medical staff to have to hold her down.
No longer an activist, it's fine with Sophie if the people she meets simply see her as a woman like any other. Most casual acquaintances have no idea she was once male, she says. She only makes a point of telling them if a relationship becomes a deep friendship or if the other person possibly has romantic notions toward her, she says.
"There is this misconception that males transgender as females to delight in tricking straight men into bed, and that just isn't true," she says. "If I meet someone and there is even a thought that they might look at me in a romantic way, I make sure they know before anyone gets any ideas."
There are other risks. "With my career just taking off, I wonder and worry about the day some reader of mine looks up my history and comes at me with an attack. But I'm not going to hide from it. It's better to deal with whatever hardships we all face in life. On the whole, I have no regrets."
As a teenage boy, she says, life was more difficult than it is now. "I'm ten times more confident today, 100 times more socially adept than in my high school years. I wasn't very good back then at making friends."
Especially during college, she found herself sometimes reluctantly being seen as a role model.
"I was one of the first to be open about my transition, and others would come to me with feelings they might be having about LGBTA and expect me to be able to tell them what they should do. I couldn't do that," she says. "I had to recognize that being transgendered is not a quote-unquote 'normal' thing. It's not how people are intended to turn out. In my case I look at it as a medical condition. Is another person a transgender? I don't know... I wish I could help, but the best I could do for any of them was to be supportive as a friend. It's okay if you have these feelings, and it's not a bad thing if you decide you are not a transgender or whatever.
"Everyone gets confused or troubled at times. Maybe they just need time to figure out who they are, or maybe they need professional help. I try to be optimistic talking with anyone about their future, but if you are talking about a change like this one, it has to be tempered with realism about what a person may be letting themselves in for."
She recalls a story of a child who observed a chrysalis emerging from its cocoon as a beautiful monarch butterfly. The child watched the butterfly struggling and felt that it was stuck. The child carefully peeled away the remains of the cocoon and placed the butterfly on a twig, completely free.
"What the child didn't know is that it is the struggle to free itself from the cocoon that gets fluids pumping into the new wings of the butterfly. The butterfly the child saved would never be able to fly... you can end up hurting someone by giving them unbridled encouragement. So I would never tell someone else making a chance to live LGBTA is going to be perfectly fine."
She has met people who have changed gender, for example, and then felt let down by the support community they expected to be there. They wind up embittered and untrusting. "That's gut-wrenching in its own way," Sophie says.
There is some irony, Sophie finds, that she has been a man who became a woman - in a man's world. The field of video game reporting is dominated by males and is "very much a boy's club." Often the few female writers in the field have to defend their credentials.
She says she realizes it is something of a frivolous life's work, but gaming is her first love, and she finds that she is good at that form of writing. "I liked the nerdy tech stuff, even back when I was a boy."
Still, she finds ways to try and make a social impact as well.
In her writing, she has become a rare voice on the national scene to battle sexism within video games. Too often women are portrayed as weak and victims, she finds. A recent win was when the super-popular Mass Effect game put out the final title of its trilogy with a strong female lead character on the cover. Also, for a self-avowed techie, Sophie advocates against overdoing it. "We've come to the point where people replace actually talking to each other with Facebook, and that isn't making the world a better place."
She would also like to get into domestic abuse counseling. Of six women she has dated seriously in her life, she says that four had been victims of rapes. The same with many of her close female friends. "It needs to be talked about. These are women I cared for so much with my heart - and nobody was there to protect them, there was never any righting of the wrongs."
Sophie portrayed a victim in an abusive relationship in a drama group that presented its message to young Iowans - the actors interacted with the audience during scenes, allowing them to learn the signs of an unhealthy relationship and alternatives to physical conflict. She hopes to do more work and writing against violence. "I'm no athlete, no politician - but I'd like to help in whatever small way I can."
For her future, she wants what most young people from Aurelia, Iowa want - an engaging career, a chance to encourage young people following into her field, a lifelong relationship, and to raise children.
Sophie doesn't expect that everyone will understand or agree with her life choice, and that's okay, she says.
"You could live right next door to me and never know that I was once a boy, if I didn't tell you," she reflects. "There are a lot of people in a lot of conditions among us and we don't realize what they are going through. We don't know people as well as we think we do. Our neighbor, our best friends - we can always learn more and understand more about others, she says.
"There is a lot of pain and hurt in the world, but I'm always an optimist. I don't think it has to be that way. The more we learn about each other, the more empathy develops."