For the past year, Aydian Dowling has been floating on Cloud 9, cast into the national spotlight through his activist career and efforts to speak out about a wide range of issues and challenges facing transgender people.
Tens of thousands of people cast votes for him in a contest to appear on the cover of Men’s Health magazine. He appeared on Ellen DeGeneres’ talk show, in dozens of news articles, and on the cover of Gay Times, becoming the first transgender man to cover an international LGBT magazine. His video blog on YouTube has amassed even more followers, with supporters listening closely to Aydian sharing his experiences. Images from his photo shoots have gone positively viral, reaching millions who have held Aydian up as an example of the growing and increasing understanding of transgender people across the country. He and his wife Jenilee – who were featured on Logo’s television series showcasing the “It Gets Better” campaign – have certainly had quite the year.
But just a few years ago, Aydian was confronted with significant challenges – challenges that are all too familiar for too many transgender Americans.
“A lot of people say that I must not have any issues being trans,” Aydian said, referencing the messages he has received from folks across the LGBT spectrum. But just a few years ago, Aydian was fired for being transgender, a story familiar with far too many transgender people.
He hasn’t shared this experience widely before – but he wants LGBT people nationwide to know that they are not alone – and that they should not be embarrassed or think less of themselves because of the treatment they receive from people who do not understand. “It’s about society’s views,” he said. “And we need to change them.”
Aydian recorded a video about employment discrimination he has faced on his popular YouTube channel, ALionsFears, in which he talks about the vital work of story sharing and public awareness about the need for LGBT-inclusive non-discrimination protections. Check it out here – and read the full story below. If you have faced discrimination for who you are or who you love, you can join Aydian in sharing your story by clicking here.
Before his current work as an advocate, Aydian worked for many years as a baker – so when he moved to Oregon with his wife and needed to find work, he applied at a local cupcake shop and easily got the job. With his experience at a top-rated hotel in New York City and a well-respected shop in Florida, he was clearly qualified to do the work.
He was hired just before Valentine’s Day in 2013, five years after he began transitioning from female to male, and the owners took a liking to him very quickly.
“We were working a lot because we were trying to fill so many orders that week, and we got to know each other well,” Aydian said, remembering the Wednesday evening before Valentine’s Day, which fell on a Friday. “They told me that night that they wanted to share something about themselves with me, and so they told me all about their religious beliefs,” an intricate and somewhat complicated religion tied to space, astrology, and life beyond Earth. After Aydian listened intently, the owners gave him the address of a website with more information about the faith.
Feeling comfortable – and knowing that both he and the owners likely felt like outsiders sometimes, because of their faith and Aydian’s transgender identity – Aydian decided to give them the address to his own website, where he talked openly about being transgender.
“They were giving this piece of themselves to me, and so I wanted to share with them too,” he said.
The next day, Aydian came in early to again deal with the hectic week, and for most of the morning, the shop was strangely, awkwardly quiet. Aydian broke the silence: “Hey, I looked at your website! It’s really interesting – I consider myself spiritual, but your faith sounds great.”
There was a long pause, and then from one of the owners: “Your website is nice, too.”
“We didn’t talk about it more than that,” Aydian said. “I took it as, like, they checked it out, but they didn’t want to dive into anything, but they wanted to acknowledge it.”
Friday, Valentine’s Day, was extremely busy, and Aydian and his employers didn’t have time to talk about anything. Exhausted, he wrapped up the day and enjoyed his weekend.
He returned to the bakery on Monday morning, a rainy Oregon day, but when he arrived and tried to enter, the door was locked. He knocked on the door, figuring the owners simply forgot to live the door open for him, but then one of the owners emerged from the front counter, signaled to their colleague, and approached the door.
“Hey, what are you doing here?” they said. “Did you not get my email?”
Aydian’s heart sunk. He immediately assumed the worst: I just got fired, he thought. But he hadn’t checked his email that entire weekend, so he was in the dark. “What did it say?”
The owner replied: “Well, we had to let you go.” And then he closed the door and that was that.
Aydian left, stunned, and went to the bus stop – and as he waited, he checked his email. The message from the bakery was simple: “We’re letting you go because you do not meet the requirements stated in the employee handbook.”
Aydian was confused. What requirements? How did it all change so quickly, from the employers sharing their personal beliefs with him to firing him? He replied: “Can you elaborate so I can take what I did wrong here and better my future?”
The reply later that day seemed copied and pasted: “You do not meet the requirements stated in the employee handbook.”
Over the next few days, Aydian called his former employers while he stressed about what he could have messed up. Am I bad at my job?, he wondered, thinking through the many years he had spent decorating huge, elaborate cakes. His wife immediately suspected the bakery owners were not OK with Aydian being transgender. And his boss from Florida agreed: “I didn’t want to say this, Aydian – but I bet they fired you because you’re transgender. There’s no other reason for you to get fired – you make four-tier wedding cakes that taste amazing and look amazing. And your job here was cupcakes.”
“I didn’t want to say this, Aydian – but I bet they fired you because you’re transgender. There’s no other reason for you to get fired – you make four-tier wedding cakes that taste amazing and look amazing. And your job here was cupcakes.”
“It all really made me doubt myself,” Aydian said. “It made me feel like I wasn’t good at my skill. And it’s messed up to shake someone’s confidence at something they’re really good at.”
When he realized it had nothing to do with his skills, it felt even worse: “I saw that I was not being accepted by these people – people with a somewhat unorthodox religious belief. I felt so weird, so different. It made me remember that some people just don’t like me because of who I am.”
The next few months were very hard. Aydian struggled to find a job. He and his wife had just moved to the state, and scraping by on her salary alone was nearly impossible. Finally, through a group of transgender people in the area, Aydian got help – and, at last, a job selling clothing, although it wasn’t something he was specifically skilled at.
Facing employment discrimination for being who he was felt terrible. And for Aydian, it reinforced his conviction of just how important it is for more and more people to understand who transgender people are – and why we must come together as a country to ensure that they are explicitly protected under federal, state, and local laws from discrimination and mistreatment.
Aydian knows that discrimination against transgender people is still unacceptably pervasive – he receives many messages from supporters detailing their own experiences, he speaks out about the health, employment, and housing disparities transgender people face, and he himself is occasionally greeted by a nasty comment or a lingering fear about how people will react to his identity.
That’s why it’s so important to Aydian to speak up about the need for nationwide, comprehensive protections from discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. Everyone, he knows, should be able to share their talents and skills with the world and have the opportunity to work hard.
“Getting and keeping jobs, using bathrooms, and having the right to be a human in every form shouldn’t be daily struggles for people – but they are. And it’s time for that to change.”– Aydian Dowling
“I think there are millions of people out there who truly want to learn and be educated so they can become respectful,” Aydian said. “And there are other people we are going to have to bring along with us and show them who we are.”
It comes down to safety, respect, and having the freedom to simply live your life, he said – and he knows that the fight is not over for any American, not until lawmakers at the federal level pass LGBT-inclusive non-discrimination protections: As someone who travels often, every state’s laws matter, and today’s jumble of laws – where LGBT people have full protections in some, limited protections in others, and none at all in the rest – simply won’t do.
“I want to know that I can be safe. If I visit North Carolina or Mississippi, where there aren’t just a lack of protections but also laws specifically calling for discrimination against transgender people, I could face real problems anywhere, he said.
“Getting and keeping jobs, using bathrooms, and having the right to be a human in every form shouldn’t be daily struggles for people – but they are. And it’s time for that to change.”
Aydian Dowling is an activist, speaker, and YouTube vlogger who started the clothing company Point5cc, which benefits the transgender community. Freedom for All Americans is proud to amplify Aydian’s story and his commitment to transgender issues through the Transgender Freedom Project. If you would like to share your story about facing anti-LGBT discrimination or support LGBT non-discrimination protections, just click here.