You might know him as the physically fit model who appeared on a special cover of Men’s Health a few years ago, but Aydian Dowling’s made a habit of breaking barriers, refusing to back down, standing up and being seen. He wasn’t always the beaming, confident model on the cover of magazines, though. There were dark periods when, at times, he couldn’t see any way to survive.
In those times, Aydian Dowling found the inspiration to go on in some unlikely places: a soap opera he wasn’t supposed to see, a Pride parade that changed his life.
Dowling was my guest recently on The Sewers of Paris, a podcast on which queer people talk about the books, movies, TV shows and music that changed their lives. For Aydian Dowling, the life-changing media was All My Children, a soap opera he watched while home sick from school. “I caught the first daytime television on-screen [same-sex] kiss,” he said. “And that drastically changed everything in my life after that.”
At the time, Dowling was a “rebel punk rock kid,” and watching soap operas was very uncool. But he felt a kinship with the queer characters. “I was secretly lying about being sick, they were secretly meeting in the episode. I was watching it closely, hidden … they were very hidden on-camera. When I saw that it opened up this whole realm of possibility for me. Wow, these two people can fall in love and it’s OK.”
That started a coming-out process that didn’t always go smoothly. After he came out to friends as a lesbian, some stopped talking to him. He still had a long way to go before he understood what it was to be transgender. At the time, he felt that he was a tomboyish girl.
“I saw Dykes on Bikes and I was like, oh, that’s me,” Aydian Dowling says. And for a long time, identifying as lesbian seemed right. But he found himself increasingly feeling less like a boyish girl and more like a boy, doing things like borrowing his brother’s clothes so he could dress more comfortably.
“Have you ever thought about being a man?” a friend asked him, and initially he resisted. But the more he thought about it, the more it seemed like it might be a possibility.
A few years after his soap opera binge, Dowling happened to catch an episode of Maury featuring transgender people, and something clicked. Although Maury‘s presentation of trans issues was anything but sensitive, seeing others like him helped Dowling recognize something within.
He started seeking out trans YouTubers, and joined communities of adolescents and young adults who were exploring the transition process. After a while, Dowling started making YouTube videos of his own. While many trans YouTubers disappear after their transition, preferring to leave their old identity behind, Aydian cultivated a public persona and wanted to be open about his transition. “I didn’t want to have to lie about knowing what it’s like to get my first period,” he said by way of example.
A friend recommended that he enter the contest to appear in Men’s Health, and Aydian Dowling was stunned by the positive response.
Being a public figure has been a thrill, he says: “I’m more OK with being human than I ever have before.”