This month, Aydian Dowling becomes the first transgender man to grace IN’s cover – read on for more on his inspirational journey
By Courtney Hardwick
Since the day he found out he had a real shot at winning the Men’s Health 2015 Ultimate Guy competition, to say Aydian Dowling has been a busy guy would be an understatement. At 28 years old, Dowling has become one of the most recognizable faces not only in the female-to-male trans world, but as part of the LGBT community as a whole.
He’s headed to Toronto (his first visit to Canada) for this year’s Pride parade, which takes place on July 3, thanks to being named 2016’s International Grand Marshal. In previous years, the position has been held by Celina Jaitly and Anna Rekhviashvili, and the New Yorker is ecstatic to be a part of Canada’s Pride festivities this year. “It’s exciting to know that the work I do is reaching past the 50 states. That’s really exciting and super-motivating,” he told IN Magazine.
After coming out as transgender in 2009 (he was out as a lesbian before that), Dowling started chronicling his journey on his YouTube channel, A Lions Fear. Now the channel, which has almost 35,000 subscribers, includes hundreds of videos documenting his day-to-day experiences, thoughts and even some spoken-word poetry. They touch on everything from a typical leg day at the gym to his views on transgender issues like the public washroom debate, to overcoming his fear of playing sports as a transgender man.
For transgender men like Dowling, being able to look in the mirror and see the person they feel like on the inside is a lifelong journey. Unlike many transgender people, growing up Dowling didn’t realize exactly what was missing until he was around 20. During an appearance on The Ellen DeGeneres Show last year, he talked about the moment it clicked that maybe he wasn’t really a lesbian; maybe he was actually male. He credits an ex-girlfriend’s seemingly random question—“Have you ever thought about being a boy?”—with sparking his interest in finding out more about what it meant to be transgender. And he hasn’t looked back since.
When the time came to actually tell his friends and family about his revelation, he was lucky to have a lot of support, even if many of the people in his life didn’t really understand what he meant when he said he felt like he was a guy. “When I came out, it was mostly confusion. Like wanting to accept, but not really knowing what it was,” Dowling told IN. His mother specifically was worried about how he would be treated as a transgender person. “I think she was more concerned with my safety, because being a nurse she’d seen the bad side of being transgender. You know, where they’re coming into the ER and she sees the reactions of the doctors and the other nurses when they think a patient is a woman but they cut open the clothes and find a penis. She heard what was said behind the curtain.”
As a nurse, his mother was also very focused on the medical side of what it meant to transition. When Dowling was first starting his transition process, he had to go to a therapist and be diagnosed with gender identity disorder before he could begin hormone replacement therapy. But the day he actually started testosterone (or T) was a big deal. He has an entire video dedicated to the day he picked up his prescription and went to the doctor to learn the process of injecting himself—and you can see his excitement in the way he holds up his prescription for the camera.
When he first came out, Dowling mostly turned to YouTube for answers to his questions about what transitioning really entailed. But the first-hand information from other trans men that was available online was limited. “There was a very small trans male community. And there were eight or nine popular guys. Once they would transition and start being able to pass, they would stop making videos and just kind of disappear. And then six months later, all their videos would disappear and you’d never hear about them again,” Dowling told IN. “There wasn’t much out there, so that’s what motivated me to make videos, because I was kind of inspired by these other guys, but I still felt like there wasn’t enough information out there. So I wanted to help provide more information about being a transgender male.”
Transitioning from female to male comes with plenty of physical struggles. Hormone therapy is an essential part of the process since it stimulates the growth of facial and body hair, causes the vocal cords to thicken (resulting in a deeper voice), and changes the way body fat distributes itself (less fat around the hips and thighs, for example). For most transgender people, male or female, physical appearance is a huge step towards becoming more comfortable in their own skin. But hormones can only take them so far.
Aydian underwent top surgery—or a subcutaneous mastectomy—in 2012, almost three years after starting T. This surgery is the number one procedure sought by transgender men, for obvious reasons—it allows for a more masculine appearance and eliminates the need for daily “binding,” the process of wrapping breasts to make them appear smaller or non-existent.
It was Dowling’s experience with top surgery that led to the inspiration for his clothing line, Point5cc. He started the company in 2011 to help raise money for his own surgery and has since kept it going as a way to give back to the community. The company developed the first-ever binder exchange program, which helps find a quality chest compression garment for transgender men who wouldn’t be able to get one otherwise. It also hosts an annual Transgender Surgery Fund that raises money to put towards surgery for transgender-identifying men and women.
As well, the company is about to add a non-profit organization called Point of Pride to its ranks; this will allow for more donations and give Dowling the chance to keep giving back to the community that helped him get to where he is today.
Fitness is another thing that has been a huge part of Dowling’s life ever since he came out as transgender. “I couldn’t get on hormones right away. So I knew that if I wanted to look more masculine and feel better about my body, I could start working out. Working out made me feel empowered and strong in my masculinity,” he explained to IN. “I developed a better relationship with my body. When you’re working out, you’re looking in the mirror and watching your body change.”
Exercise is something he had control over throughout the slow process of transitioning, and he stuck with it even though he had plenty of insecurities and days where all he did was compare himself to other men at the gym.
That attitude was what eventually led him to enter the Men’s Health Ultimate Guy competition last year. “I wanted to show other trans men that even though we’re trans and we’re not biological men, there’s no reason we can’t try out for these competitions and we can’t be named the Ultimate Guy,” Dowling told IN. He never expected such a positive response, but as the votes kept rolling in, it started to become apparent that he might be the first-ever transgender man on the cover of Men’s Health.
Dowling entered the contest to make a point: that a trans guy is every bit as much of a man as one who is born with the right hormones and physical features. “The thought of actually ending up on the cover seemed pretty far-fetched,” he said. “I didn’t think it would actually happen.” Although he didn’t end up winning the title of Ultimate Guy, he did make it into the top five, joining the other finalists on the cover of a Special Reader’s Edition. Not bad for a guy who just entered to prove that he could.
Since that Ultimate Guy competition, Dowling has been interviewed and featured by a variety of magazines including Gay Times and FTM, where he recreated Adam Levine’s almost-nude photo shoot from Cosmopolitan UK. Jason Robert Ballard, the creator of FTM magazine, told Huffington Post, “We by no means mean to say that this is what all transgender males look like, but this is what one of us looks like and it’s no different from our cisgender counterparts.” For Dowling’s part, he said, “Some areas of my body used to remind me of everything I’m not. Now they represent everything I am.”
For Dowling, fitness is now a lifestyle. It helped get him through the body dysmorphia he felt before and during his transition, and he has no plans to slow down any time soon. In addition to his main YouTube channel, Dowling also started Beefheads Fitness, a channel dedicated to fitness advice specifically for people transitioning from female to male.
His biggest piece of advice for trans men who are just starting out on their journey and feel discouraged and frustrated by how slow the process can be? Slow down and appreciate every step, because there’s no going back. It might seem like there’s a big rush to get to the point where you can “pass” as a man, but once that happens, you’re just another face in the crowd. Instead, try to experience every change as much as you can. As Dowling puts it, “I used to be able to walk into a room and everyone knew I was a lesbian. Now I’m just another average white guy.” Of course, none of his 107,000 Instagram followers would call him average, and neither would the thousands of people who voted for him to be on the cover of Men’s Health.
Dowling knows he’s just one version of what a trans guy can look like, but his journey has been about more than looking the way he wants to look. He’s committed to helping other trans guys in any way he can, because everyone deserves to have the chance to be on the outside who they feel they are on the inside.
COURTNEY HARDWICK is a Toronto-based freelance writer. Her work has appeared online at AmongMen, Complex Canada, Elle Canada and TheBolde.