High school senior Syd Sanders talks about his upcoming graduation and how he'll be valedictorian of Belfast Area High School.

BELFAST, Maine — Syd Sanders is perched at the top of his 109-senior graduating class this year at Belfast Area High. The Harvard University-bound valedictorian believes he is the first transgender student in Maine — and perhaps the nation — to graduate with that distinction.

But for the 18-year-old Sanders, who gets a little embarrassed when he talks about his academic accomplishments, the label of being a transgender valedictorian is secondary to who he is as a person.

What he is more than anything, perhaps, is genuine.

“I just am who I am,” he said. “I would probably be dead if I couldn’t be who I was. I just have to be myself.”

For Sanders, his journey to find his identity really took off in the eighth grade, when he began to come out as transgender. That is when a person’s sense of identity and gender does not align with their birth sex. At that time, Sanders attended school on Islesboro, and his peers there had known him for years. It was challenging for them to accept that he was a boy.

“It was very rough,” he said. “In terms of coming out, it was confusing.”

At home, it didn’t feel much easier for Sanders, who was also struggling with depression. Sanders wanted a fresh start for high school, and transferred to Belfast. He also started going to a gender clinic in Portland, where after a long period of therapy, he would be able to begin hormone treatment.

“I hoped I would just be able to start as a boy and that no one would find out,” he said.

It worked — sort of.

“Over time, people found out,” he said. “When I came out as trans, publicly, to everyone, and started living as a boy, they had no choice but to support me.”

That might have been because it was difficult for Sanders to remain under the radar.

“I have a naturally loud, combative personality, so it’s hard to stay hidden for long,” he said. “There are lots of conservative people at Belfast. But the thing is, I’ve just gained their respect somehow. I feel that even people who disagree with who I am, they still respect me. I don’t know entirely why. But that’s what happened.”

Living like Laila

That may be because Sanders is special, according to Mary Alice McLean, the Regional School Unit 71 superintendent.

“Syd Sanders is an extraordinary person, with a depth of understanding, passion and commitment unusual for someone so young,” she said.

The superintendent reeled off a laundry list of the student’s accomplishments, which include being a member of the school’s gay/straight/trans alliance for all four years, serving as class president for both his junior and senior years, and being selected as the high school’s representative to Boys State — the first transgender student to be so honored. He also worked tirelessly to promote the debate club, served on the city of Belfast’s Climate Change Committee, participated in community theater as an actor and stage manager and helped organize the Belfast Pride Parade.

“Even more important than all these important co-curricular and civic contributions, it is in Syd’s classes that he has emerged as a rock star, modeling a genuine fascination about each of his subjects,” she said. “He has raised the bar for his fellow students, who recognize Syd as exceptional and feel helped by him — especially when it comes to group work.”

English teacher Zach Smith agreed that there is something remarkable about Sanders.

“He’s probably the most undaunted and fearless student I’ve ever had,” he said. “I’m incredibly proud of him scholastically and also personally. He has a rare kind of determination and integrity.”

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Some of that bravery may come from a place of tragedy and sadness. In August 2018, Laila Al-Matrouk, his classmate and close friend, died in a cycling accident. At the time, Sanders, about to enter his junior year, was still struggling with sadness and anger. His friend’s death became a watershed moment for him.

“She was such a radiant, wonderful person. She was my inspiration — she had so many interests, so many dreams and goals. She loved everyone so much,” he said. “When she died, it really hit me — I want to be like her. I’m tired of living life being depressed at home. She’s the one who inspired me.”

Sanders began to emulate Al-Matrouk, doing community service, speaking up for things and being passionate rather than disengaged. He worked to appreciate his friends more, and to make good choices for himself.

“I got happy,” he said, simply.

The very first decision he made was to move out of his family’s house and into their garage, where he could live more independently. Since then, he has worked a number of minimum-wage jobs to support himself, buying his own food, clothes and other necessities. His parents didn’t ask him to move out or pay his own way, but it was something that the teen needed to do for himself.

“My relationship with my family after I moved out has gotten so much better,” Sanders said. “We’re friends now.”

‘Nobody lifted an eyebrow’

The teen’s fierce independence is part of his personality, according to his dad, Belfast Mayor Eric Sanders.

“He’s insistent on it,” the elder Sanders said.

Eric and his wife, Courtney Sanders, worried about whether their son would be accepted when he first came out as transgender. They’ve been relieved to see that, by and large, he has been. At Boys State, Syd Sanders was not only accepted by the other participants, he was voted senator.

“Kids aren’t like they were in our day,” Eric Sanders said. “I don’t think anybody lifted an eyebrow.”

But his parents know it hasn’t always been easy for their son.

“He’s had a journey, as most kids do,” Eric Sanders said. “Through perseverance, talent and plain old-fashioned hard work, he’s come out swinging. He’s a great kid … He’s an overachiever. He’s going to burn up the highway. He’s going to do fine in life.”

In the far-off future, Syd Sanders has big dreams. He’d like to be the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations one day.

“I’m going to work toward it, and hopefully, I’ll get there,” he said.

In the near future, the teen, along with every other American senior, is finishing up his high school career by doing Zoom classes at home and getting ready for a spring without the normal pomp, circumstance and festivities that surround graduation.

“It’s pretty rough. It’s a very lonely way to graduate,” Syd Sanders said. “It’s also really sad because we don’t get to say goodbye to our peers or our teachers. It’s anticlimactic. We all deserve to be celebrated. We’ve all worked so hard.”

These days, though, the teen is an optimist. He knows the pandemic year of 2020 will mark him and every one of his peers — and hopes that some good will come out of it, too.

“On the positive side, I really feel that this is bringing my generation together,” Syd Sanders said. “I’m trying to think of this as a way we can find some solidarity and come together in the future.”