The hundreds of men competing to land the cover of Men's Health magazine are nearly all buff, tattooed, fond of bathroom selfies, and look like they know their way around a bench press. Aydian Dowling is no different. The 27-year-old fitness fanatic is currently ranked No. 1 in Men's Health magazine's "Ultimate Guy Search," a nationwide contest to elect one health-conscious, physically fit, and socially aware American man on the cover of its November 2015 issue.
But for Dowling, the contest is about more than just his ego—it's a chance to redefine what it means to be a man. Dowling is transgender, and he's documented his transition in a series of diary-style YouTube videos over the last six years, building up a loyal fan base of more than 15,000 subscribers who tune in for his candid talks on everything from coming out, hormone replacement therapy, surgery, and recovery.
"This was the search for the ultimate man, a man who is well-rounded in all things, so I really felt like, you know, I am a man also," Dowling told TakePart, speaking by phone from his home in Eugene, Oregon, where he lives with his wife and runs the LGBT-oriented clothing company Point 5cc. "It's a big deal," he says. “It puts affirmation on trans men being men.”
Dowling uses a sports analogy to describe himself as a member of a team working toward a common goal: transgender awareness and visibility. "I'm the ball in Roller Derby," he says, referring to a game where one player acts as a human ball. "You can't get points until the rest of the team pushes the ball. Right now I happen to be the ball and I have no problem smashing down some barriers when I have thousands of people pushing me."
Among those thousands of supporters are YouTube stars and LGBT activists Hannah Hart and Tyler Oakley, both of whom re-blogged a post about Dowling's bid for the "Ultimate Guy Search" on their popular Tumblr pages earlier this week. At the time of this writing, Dowling had racked up more than 24,000 total votes—or about three times that of his closest competitor—but he says he hadn't even considered applying until his fans suggested it via email.
While the winner of the contest is selected based on a combination of factors such as physical fitness, community service, and professional success, it's not determined by reader votes alone. A panel of judges including Kenneth Cole, Sofia Vergara, and Men's Health editor-in-chief Bill Phillips will ultimately decide who wins when the voting period closes on June 21.
"At the end of the day, if I get on the cover, it's not about me," says Dowling. "It's about the community as a whole. The transgender community wanted this. They’re the ones that decided to make this a big deal."