[June is Pride Month, and this year we're celebrating by honoring 30 LGBTQ firsts. To see the full list, visit nbcnews.com/pride30.]
When Syd Sanders graduated from high school in May 2020, he became Maine’s first out transgender valedictorian, graduating at the top of his class of 109 students.
"I try my hardest and go hard at everything," he told NBC News at the time. "I’m just that sort of person."
Now, a year after graduation, Sanders, 19, just completed his freshman year at Harvard University. Thinking back on his historic valedictorian accomplishment, he said: “I never realized I could have an impact. I’ve been reflecting on how other people have impacted my life, and I realized I have an impact, too. I try to remember that. You have a bigger effect on people’s lives than you think you do.”
Sanders' hometown of Belfast, Maine, is a coastal community of about 6,500 people. Now home for the summer, Sanders reflected on where he’s from and what he’s come back to.
“Theres not a lot of gay people here, and there’s a lot of toxic masculinity,” he said. “‘Gender expression’ is not a term people know here.”
Sanders said he “felt bound” by toxic masculinity traits when he first came out as trans and “subscribed to them.”
“I struggled with emotional openness, and with the clothes I wore, I felt like I had to stick with the most masculine-passing clothes possible,” he said.
That has changed. He is now embracing his own gender expression and feeling more himself. He said he’s gone through a year of personal transformation, cutting his hair into a mullet, piercing his nose and ears and getting stick-and-poke tattoos.
“It’s just growth — personal growth,” he said. “Especially with trans people, we just naturally grow and change so much.”
Part of that growth has been considering gender and how he has experienced it.
“I no longer believe in gender,” he said, though he still uses he/him pronouns. “There’s a lot of different presentations going on. It’s really great and beautiful and powerful.”
During his first year at Harvard, he lived in the dorms but attended remote classes. He said he’s found a queer community and is taking courses in government. He credits his friends at Harvard and at home for providing support.
“My friends are my family, which I don't think is an uncommon thing for queer people,” he said. “A lot of my life has been hard work and pushing through … even [having] just one person, a teacher, a co-worker, a friend — it’s more important than people think.”
Sanders said his high school teachers were especially supportive of him. When he was announced as valedictorian last year, his English teacher, Zach Smith, told the Bangor Daily News, a local news outlet, that Sanders is “probably the most undaunted and fearless student I’ve ever had. … I’m incredibly proud of him scholastically and also personally. He has a rare kind of determination and integrity.”
Sanders told the paper last year that even though there were conservative people at his high school, he wasn’t bullied and he gained the respect of those peers. “I feel that even people who disagree with who I am, they still respect me,” he said.
With summer and Pride festivities on the way, Sanders said that, to him, Pride is all about embracing yourself, especially in the face of those who may not be supportive.
“Growing to love and embrace yourself for who you are is a really powerful thing in a system where you don’t fit in and where the dominant system tries to erase you,” he said, adding that Pride is “the power to love and embrace yourself in spite of all that.”
What’s next for Sanders? He’s continuing his studies and looking toward the future.
“My dream is to be a senator one day,” he said.