By Maria Caspani
NEW YORK (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Aydian Dowling could help redefine masculinity this year if he becomes the first transgender man to appear on the cover of a leading men's health and fitness magazine.
Dowling, 27, who lives in Eugene, Oregon, is the favorite candidate in a Men's Health magazine contest seeking to crown a man who embodies the publication's ideals of fitness and healthy living.
The winner will be featured on the cover of the U.S. fitness magazine in November and Dowling, with more than 70,000 votes, is in the quarter finals, hoping to win the judges' vote.
"When I first saw all the votes and (that) I started to really climb up the 'Leaderboard' to the top spots, I was pretty floored. I just couldn't believe the level that social media can really reach," Dowling said.
The competition will be decided during a year in which transgender rights have become hotly contested globally with Barack Obama notching up a U.S. presidential first by using the word "transgender" in this year's State of the Union address.
Increasing numbers of countries are introducing laws to protect transgender people although many still live in fear of abuse and assault in most countries, with hundreds killed every year, figures from rights groups show.
The majority of transgender experiences that have garnered worldwide attention in recent years are of men becoming women, from actress Laverne Cox to athlete and reality TV star Caitlyn Jenner, while female-to-male transgender people remain less visible.
Dowling said the experience has been "insane but amazing" and hopes it will help challenge stereotypes and give transgender people more of a voice in their campaign for acceptance.
"If I make the cover of Men's Health it would mean that anyone who decides to live their life authentically, without judgment of themselves, can do so and people will support them," Dowling told the Thomson Reuters Foundation speaking from his home in Oregon.
Dowling said that while growing up in a New York City suburb, he had been depressed and unhappy with his physical appearance, although he never felt trapped in the wrong body.
"(I knew) if I transitioned I could be discriminated against and hated. But it was going to be a lot better than what I had going on because it didn't matter whether people hated or loved me. I hated me," said Dowling, a self-confessed gym junkie who this spring graced the cover of FTM Magazine, a publication for the trans male community.
With his heart-throb looks, blue-eyes and bulging pecs, he has drummed up support for the Men's Health cover bid through social media like Facebook and Instagram with posts of his daily workouts at the gym getting thousands of likes.
After an adolescence filled with suicidal thoughts, Dowling said transitioning to become a man was the most positive development of his life.
"Within six months of starting hormones and identifying as male, everyone in my life was telling me how different I was," said Dowling.
It was a costly decision as transitioning is a lengthy process that involves hormone therapy, psychological counseling and can also include a number of surgical interventions.
Dowling managed to fund the start of the process - the almost $6,000 needed for surgery to remove breast tissue - by setting up a clothing company, Point 5cc, named after the average dose of hormones a transgender person would take.
He was able to save for his surgery in a little over six months thanks to his 'Super T', t-shirts with a modified Superman logo that replaces the 'S' with a 'T', and some private donations.
Many transgender people in the United States cannot afford to buy insurance policies that cover sex reassignment surgery and, without insurance, are unable to get hormones and counseling that can be life-saving for some.
Dowling now works full-time on his clothing line that provides breast binders for female-to-male (FTM) transgender people and sponsors an annual fundraiser for sex reassignment surgeries.
He hopes that his transition to a man featured in video blogs on his YouTube channel with more than 23,000 subscribers will also help others going through what he has endured.
Dowling said he believes that with more attention being paid to transgender lives in general, more transgender men will share their stories, too.
Dowling's hopes are high to win the Men's Health contest, not just for himself and his wife, Jenilee, whom he met online and married three years ago, but for the entire transgender community.
"I hope my message of being true to myself, attempting to be as fearless as possible, and how big a role health and wellness has taken in making all of that, will be shown through this cover," he said.
(Reporting by Maria Caspani, Editing by Leslie Gevirtz)