Syd Sanders is a student and activist making history in his Maine school district: This month, he will become the first transgender valedictorian in the state.
Sanders, 18, is the top of his 105-person class at Belfast Area High School, and told TODAY.com that while excited to celebrate the accomplishment, it was a long road of self-discovery for him and his family before they finally reached this point.
"It's been an up and down kind of journey," he said. "I figured out that I am trans when I was in eighth grade and I like, stumbled across the definition of transgender, and it was one of those like, instinct moments, when you feel something like, clicks."
"It was kind of scary, because in middle school no one wants something huge and confusing," he continued. "So it was kind of scary, but I came out pretty quickly to my peers and my family."
However, his announcement was not accepted by many in his life. After difficulty adjusting "pushed (him) back into the closet for a year," Sanders said, he transferred to a new school for high school.
"I just went in as a boy and I was like 'I'm going to keep my head down and hope no one finds out," he said. "I think 'going stealth' is the word and that kind of worked for a little bit, but you know, not for that long."
Sanders told TODAY that one important thing parents can do if their children come out to them is to trust their child's instincts.
"Accept your kid, trust your kid," he said. "A lot of parents think it's a phase or like they're not really sure, they're just confused, they don't understand, that kind of thing. I would say even if you don't understand what your kid is going through, even if you don't necessarily believe them, just accept them and let them figure things out. Just be there for them. Listen to them."
He said that during his virtual valedictorian speech later this month, he wants to encourage his fellow students to celebrate and recognize everyone despite their differences.
"I'm going to talk about how my experience here in my town and my school has proven to me that prejudice doesn't have to exist and we can all love and accept each other, because I come from a small rural place," he said. "It's not necessarily a super progressive place, but I've managed to gain everyone's respect. I've managed to show everyone my humanity ... Even if they disagree with my gender or something, they've been able to come to see me as a human being just like them, and it's given me so much hope for our future, for my generation's future, for America's future."
For those struggling right now, the Harvard-bound valedictorian encouraged them to just keep going no matter what.
"You just have to keep going and stick it out and keep trying, and it will get so much better," he said.