Sitting in Sweet Life Patisserie in the Whiteaker, Aydian Dowling discusses the meaning of “going viral” — or gaining instant fame via the internet.
“Once we hit 200,000 views on just the Buzzfeed page,” he says, “we were like, ‘What does it mean to go viral?’” He laughs. “I think when we break a million, we’ll say that we went viral.”
Dowling and friend Jason Ballard did break a million views; in fact, Ballard says on Upworthy.com alone, they’ve surpassed the 2.5 million mark, making international headlines from the Huffington Post to The Advocate to the Daily Mail.
At the heart of this overnight celebrity is a photo Ballard posted on Buzzfeed Feb. 17. He recently took the shot of Dowling and his wife, Jenilee Dowling, in the living room of their Whiteaker home. The image mirrors a now iconic 2011 photograph of Adam Levine (lead singer for Maroon 5) and his then girlfriend, taken for Cosmopolitan UK to raise awareness for testicular cancer.
In Ballard’s version, Dowling, like Levine, stands nude; his muscular tattooed physique is front and center, a neatly trimmed beard and tousled mohawk framing his gaze. Jenilee Dowling’s hands reach up from out of frame, coyly covering the family jewels.
For how fierce the picture is, Aydian Dowling says he did need some cajoling from Ballard to be so vulnerable, and, he jokes, his wife requested a manicure.
The trio recreated the shot to raise awareness for the transgender community, specifically the FTM (or female-to-male) community. Both Dowling and Ballard are FTM transgender men.
“In my mind, he was cover-model worthy,” says Ballard, who runs the burgeoning FTM Magazine — a quarterly publication “dedicated to the lives and culture of the FTM and Trans-masculine community” — out of Rochester, New York. The shot in question is, in fact, just a promo for the spring issue on which Dowling will grace the cover, out April 1.
It is more than Dowling’s good looks that qualify him as cover-worthy; at just 27, he is a preeminent trans activist, having documented his transition, beginning five years ago from the stage of “pre-hormones,” or pre-hormone replacement therapy, to present day via his YouTube channel, ALionsFears, gaining thousands of followers and hundreds of thousands of views.
Eugeneans Siobhan Teahan and Rex hunnel sport point 5cc hats and ‘shape shifter’ hoodies
The Dowlings also appeared on MTV in 2012 for Dan Savage’s It Gets Better, a special documenting the struggles and triumphs of LGBTQ youth. The MTV crew followed the couple as they prepared for their wedding, tagging along with Dowling as he tried on tuxedos, as well as when he revealed to their officiant that he was a trans man — the first time he had officially “come out” to anyone beyond his closest friends and family.
The couple, originally from Long Island, moved to Eugene for Jenilee Dowling’s job in February 2014. Soon after arriving, Aydian Dowling went to hear trans activist Ryan Sallans speak at the UO, where he met Cass Averill, founder and facilitator of TransPonder, a local monthly gathering for trans-identified or questioning people. Averill introduced Dowling to the Redoux Parlour, where he works part time, spending the rest of his time running his company Point 5cc, a transgender and LGBT apparel company.
“It’s called Point 5cc because that’s the average amount of hormone replacement therapy that a trans man would take weekly,” Dowling says. He describes his line of silkscreened T-shirts, hoodies and tanks, as well as embroidered snapback hats and accessories, as “stealth style,” or coded clothing.
“Which means it’s not out and in your face,” he explains. “Instead of a shirt saying ‘I am transgender,’ it is like a symbol or an image or a funny slogan that’s stealth.”
For example, one of Dowling’s first and most popular T-shirts, the “Super T,” riffs on the Superman logo, replacing the “S” with a “T.” Other apparel is silkscreened with a human face transforming into a lion, a shapeshifter. All silk-screening Dowling does by hand in their garage studio.
Point 5cc is as much an advocacy endeavor as an entrepreneurial one for Dowling. He started the company in 2012 while living in Florida to raise money for surgery.
“It was actually kind of organically started because I needed to raise money for my top surgery, which is the removal of breast tissue, and then they make your chest look more masculine,” he says.
Out of pocket, top surgery will cost $6,000-plus, and not all insurance companies cover the surgery in full, and some not at all. “The ones who do, they don’t cover good surgeons; they cover the mediocre guys who are just getting into it,” he says. “You could take a chance on scarring for the rest of your life going to one doctor, or you could save up your own cash and go to a good doctor that would actually make it look good.”
Dowling was reluctant about crowd-funding the cost of surgery through sites like Kickstarter, a common practice in the transgender community, he says, because the community has a much higher rate of poverty, about 14 percent of the population.
So he started making the “Super T” shirts, selling them for $20 a pop, as well as accepting private donations. Within six months he had raised the money for surgery, but the shirts had become so popular he decided to continue.
“I wanted to make sure I could give back to the people who gave to me,” he says. Then he thought, “Why don’t I just save a portion of the money and donate it at the end of each year to somebody who’s trying to get surgery?” Point 5cc has now donated thousands of dollars to others trying to get the procedure.
“A lot of people have picked up on the company now,” Dowling notes of the viral image’s aftermath. “The momentum is still moving. It’s pretty crazy.”
Many in the community and the media say the photo was a major breakthrough in dismantling the stigma surrounding transgender bodies. Ballard says there is still a lot of education to be done in mainstream culture about the trans community.
“I think we have a weird notion that we wouldn’t be attractive,” Ballard says of society’s preconceived notions of trans people. “I get, ‘You don’t look trans’ a lot. But I am trans and this is what I look like. Clearly your idea is off.”
There is much work to be done on issues affecting the trans community: According ot the Human Rights Campaign, transgender people are the most targeted group in hate crimes; in 32 states (not including Oregon), employers can still fire transgender people for their identity; inadequate health insurance and care — the list goes on and on. But Dowling has seen a promising shift.
“There was no ‘transgender’ five years ago, which is funny to say because I think, in people’s minds, a lot of people think ‘Oh, Laverne Cox and Chaz Bono.’ They can name a couple people, but those still are within the last couple years,” he says, referring to one of the stars of Orange Is the New Black and Cher and Sonny Bono’s son.
“Everyone deserves to be seen. Transgender deserves a space on the shelf.”
For more information about Dowling and Ballard’s work, visit point5cc.com and ftmmagazine.com
|Photo by Jason Ballard.|