When transgender vlogger and activist Aydian Dowling entered Men’s Health‘s Ultimate Guy Search for a shot at being on the cover, he never imagined he’d receive such an outpouring of encouragement.
“It’s crazy,” the New York native, 27, tells PEOPLE. “It’s phenomenal, the amount of support it’s gotten – how many people have re-Tweeted and re-blogged and re-posted and liked and shared and commented and voted.”
Dowling currently has a very strong lead in the competition, which aims to find “a guy who is fit and fearless, a doer who gives back and leads by example” to be featured on the fitness mag’s cover.
“I think I would have laughed if someone said that in five years I was going to be in a competition to be on the cover of Men’s Health magazine,” says Dowling. “I would be like, ‘No way would you be putting me shirtless on a magazine!’ ”
His dedication to fitness and bodybuilding has helped him gain self-confidence through his transition.
“I started bodybuilding because I wanted my outer body to feel more masculine like my inner soul does, so I started training and it really just changed my whole life,” he says. “I started to feel better. You’re forced in front of a mirror to make sure that you’re doing an exercise properly, and after five days a week in front of a mirror, you start to get used to your body. You start to appreciate it.”
He’s shared his love of bodybuilding with other transgender people in hopes that it will help build their confidence as well.
“Giving back is a large part of my life,” Dowling says on his Ultimate Guy Search page. “I started the first YouTube Collaboration BeefHeads Fitness, a channel geared towards Transgender Individuals looking to get fit and healthy. On a more local platform I did start training other Transgender Males here in my new town of Eugene, Oregon. They have greatly progressed and I feel very proud to see their self confidence grow.”
If he does win, Dowling would see it as a victory for the transgender community as a whole.
“I want to break the stereotype of what a man should or shouldn’t be,” he says. “I think it would blow minds. I think it would be so affirming to young kids who are lost right now and depressed to see somebody on a magazine, to see if I can do it, they can do it too.”