High School Advisor: “I’ve Been Enriched in Ways I Never Imagined”

For 23 years, Moira McKinnon has served as the bridge between high school and college for thousands of students. As a college counselor at Berwick Academy, a private pre-K through 12 school serving Maine and the seacoast of New Hampshire, Moira has been in the unique position of helping students find their way into the college or university that best aligns with their future plans and goals.

Moira is also the faculty advisor for Berwick’s LGBTQ student group, a position she’s held for close to 15 years. She explains that there is quite a bit of crossover between both her positions:

“Conversations have been increasing, especially in the last three to four years, about gender and sexuality. We now have the Campus Pride Index, which a lot of students use to find welcoming and affirming campuses,” she said. “The Common Application has also changed in the last couple of years to include boxes where a student can identify as LGBTQ and explain their circumstances. This definitely helps students who might have serious concerns about safety, roommates, and other issues.”

The issue of non-discrimination and protecting LGBTQ people is one close to Moira’s heart; her brother is gay, and he didn’t come out to his family until he was an adult. She wishes he had felt safe to do that sooner, and that she had known how to help him: “He didn’t have support — it made it so much more difficult for him to come out and be authentic.” This among many other reasons is why Moira is a firm supporter of LGBTQ students, and why she was proud to pledge to #ProtectTransStudents.

“Every student needs to come to school feeling safe and welcome,” she said. “That’s not possible for students who feel they have to hide a big part of themselves — they can’t learn as well or relate to their peers, and I just think about the huge waste of potential. We’re losing great leaders because students feel they have to be on alert all the time.”

Moira lives in New Hampshire, where there are currently no protections for transgender people in housing, employment, schools, or public accommodations like hotels, hospitals, and restaurants. This, she says, is extremely painful.

“It hurts me because I know trans people. I feel like there are a lot of people who’ve never met a trans person, so they don’t think of them as people. When are we going to get to the point where we realize that every human being deserves dignity and respect? Non-discrimination benefits all of us, not just people who identify as LGBTQ. It makes everywhere we go in life a better learning environment.”

Luckily, there is a campaign in the Granite State to pass #TransBillNH, which would enshrine protections for transgender people into law. The campaign, Freedom New Hampshire, has been an exciting step forward for many in the state, including Moira, an involved supporter.

“I’ve called my legislators, I’ve signed petitions, I’ve volunteered. I’m hoping this is solved soon and that people will realize that discrimination against anyone means the potential for discrimination against everyone.”

Moira remembers listening to the stories her grandfather would tell her as a young girl; he was an Irish immigrant, and he often recounted the hardships he endured. “I remember him telling me about coming to America and trying to find work, and the shops being plastered with signs that said No Irish.”

It is Moira’s hope that through her work, she is able to lend an ear and give comfort to those LGBTQ students who may be struggling with any number of issues in their lives. “Part of my job is preparing students to go out into the world where they will encounter myriad people. I’m sure there are kids who don’t understand what it means to be transgender, and that’s OK – but it’s something that we as a community must continue the discussion about, because it’s often those transgender kids who end up being the most vulnerable.”

When asked what the most meaningful part of her work has been thus far, she doesn’t hesitate in answering: “Being asked to lead the LGBTQ group and getting to work with our trans students, our non-binary students, has been so enriching to me. I have learned so much, I have become a better listener, I am less judgmental, and more curious,” she said. “That is the benefit of not discriminating. You benefit yourself by not discriminating. I have felt more connected to my students because I know them in a more full and honest way.”

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