Meet The First Transgender High School Valedictorian in Maine
Syd Sanders has lived his whole life in Belfast, Maine, a rural community with a population of 6,668 as of the 2020 Census. He describes his upbringing as a “hippie childhood,” where he ran around on farms and was able to be wild and free. It was also an isolated experience, and a homogeneous one — he did not have a deep knowledge of the LGBTQ+ community or what the word “transgender” means. It wasn’t until he was in eighth grade that, after scrolling through Instagram, he found the word and its definition. He realized that all those feelings he’d felt since puberty—namely that something was just not right—meant that he was transgender.
Although not everyone in Sanders’s life was accepting or understanding of his gender, his friend Laila Al-Matrouk—a happy, passionate teen dedicated to activism—was always supportive of him. She invited Sanders to stay at her house when things got tough at home, she was always speaking out and thinking about other people’s needs, and she was a really good friend.
In August of 2018, Al-Matrouk died after she was hit by a car while riding her bicycle. For Sanders, who had been grappling with depression before his friend’s death, this was a reminder for how he might live his life with purpose. He and Laila had done much of their activism together, including organizing their school’s walkout after the Parkland shootings, they were in all the same clubs (GSTA, civil rights team, among other activist efforts). Now it was up to Sanders to carry on his friend’s mission as an activist.
“I had a moment where I was like I want to be like her,” he told Supermajority News. “I saw all the positivity and love inside of her, and I knew I had that inside me, too. I was like, ‘I’m gonna use this time to work on my mental health, be a better friend to people, and work on my community. I’m just gonna try to be happy.’ It worked.”
It was that moment that led Sanders to decide to move out to his family’s garage, a separate building on the family’s property, which was “the best decision [he] ever made” for himself after struggling with his relationship with his parents.
“I started doing way more activism as I got healthier as a person, and I also started accepting that I was trans,” he said. “Before that, I was living as a boy, but I was always trying to minimize it, deny it, I was ashamed. I embraced it, I stopped denying it; I would talk about it and speak up for trans people in school.”
He helped get transgender education training for freshmen at Belfast High School; the training introduces the definition of transgender, the concept of pronouns, the differences between sex and gender, and lays the basic groundwork for gender education. In 11th grade, Sanders attended Maine’s Boys State, a national summer leadership and citizenship program sponsored by the American Legion. The experience, he said, had ended poorly for other transgender boys in the past, who had been turned away from the event because they made their gender identity known. Sanders did not disclose his gender before attending the event, used he/him pronouns throughout the experience, earned many prominent government titles, and walked away with one of the scholarships the program hands out each year.
Sanders started his school’s climate club this year, has been working with his school district to get solar power, and most recently co-organized Belfast’s Black Lives Matter protest after George Floyd’s murder on Memorial Day. Sanders and the other activists involved managed to get the police department in Belfast to release a statement on their website.
But if you search Sanders’s name on the internet, the first thing you’ll find is that he is the first transgender valedictorian to graduate from Maine. You’ll also find out that he will be attending Harvard in the fall. He chose Harvard for a very specific reason: “I just felt like I needed to go and inspire other people and show that you can get there.”
There’s no denying, though, that there’s something strange about being celebrated for your gender.
“I wrote my college essays about this,” he said. “To me, I don’t think about being trans any more than you think about your gender or anyone does. I don’t wake up and go, ‘Wow, what a great day to be trans.’ I only think about it because society makes me. It’s literally just who I am…When you’re trans or gay or anything, people expect you to be your label, at least where I’m from, which is rural and not diverse. People have a hard time seeing past your label, and they expect it to be you. So, if you’re the first trans valedictorian, that’s it, that’s you.”
He added that while it’s odd to be celebrated for something as simple as his gender, he’s glad that this coverage has added to trans visibility in the media.
“I’m glad because I feel like trans people are really leaning more into the spotlight in the news and at rallies,” he said. “That’s scary, but at least we’re sparking conversations. I’m really glad that I can be part of that movement of trans people getting recognition and awareness because that’s what’s needed to get more rights.”
Sanders doesn’t know what college is going to look like in the fall. Most college students in the U.S. aren’t sure what the pandemic means for going back to school, but for Sanders, an incoming freshman from a small town, this is particularly daunting. He only knows of one other student in Maine who’s going to the Ivy League university, and it’s scary to him that he might have to meet all his classmates through the internet come September.
“There are these kids who are posting pictures of themselves and like six other kids from their school who got into Harvard, and I’m the first person from my school to even get into an Ivy League in nine years,” he said. “It’s a different vibe. I don’t even have my Facebook set up.”
More than that, though, Sanders is excited for all the ways he can continue his activism in the fall. Most recently, he joined a group of incoming freshmen from Harvard and other schools to debate and educate each other about the Black Lives Matter movement online.
Sanders, whose dream is to become the American Ambassador to the UN, noted that while a lot remains to be seen about his freshman year, one thing is certain: “I will always try to stand up for other people in any way I can.”