Winston Godwin talks resiliency, going global—and how he’s making waves in his home of Bermuda
If you’re new to Ridley and find yourself poking around the stories of its various members, you’ll hear time and again how grateful Ridleians are to be part of a truly global community. Each year, international students from over 60 countries flock to the school to study, soon discovering a second family, forming lifelong connections and learning, not only from classrooms, but each other. The result? A broad worldview which helps inform each journey, lighting paths that take them far beyond the Marriott gates. For Winston Godwin ’08, his years spent on campus were some of the best of his life. “It’s certainly beautiful,” he smiles. “but it’s the people who make it special. When I go back to visit, it all comes rushing back.”
Winston grew up in Sandys, Bermuda, where he’s known widely not only for his work in the marine field, but as an important voice from Bermuda’s LGBTQ community. For years, the aquarist and his Canadian husband, Greg led the fight on same-sex marriage—a battle which still continues to this day. Winston’s clear articulation of the argument for equal rights, along with his perseverance and resilience, led to his being named Bermudian of the Year in 2017, and a Ridleian of Distinction the year that followed.
Born of hardworking parents, Winston’s father worked for years at the Bermuda Telephone Company, his mother a housekeeper at the Elbow Beach Hotel. “My dad always felt education was the biggest investment he could make for his children,” remembers the alumnus, who attended Saltus Grammar School before coming to Ridley. “He had always wanted us to go to Canada and believed sending us away to school would help broaden our horizons, our minds—ultimately the world.”
“My dad always felt education was the biggest investment he could make for his children. He had always wanted us to go to Canada and believed sending us away to school would help broaden our horizons, our minds—ultimately the world.”
After high school, Winston studied at the University of Guelph, graduating with degrees in Geography and Environmental Analysis and Geographic Information Systems. As someone who now works in the marine field, having joined researchers from around the world on The Turtle Project and clean-up crews on plastics research vessel, the Sea Dragon, he’s long been passionate about marine life, and has seen firsthand the human impact on our oceans. He now works as an aquarist, caring for animals at the Bermuda Aquarium, Museum and Zoo.
A British territory settled by the English in the early seventeenth-century, Bermuda is self-governing, a parliamentary dependency which sits under a constitutional monarchy. Its small population—around 70,000 people—lean toward conservative views. Shortly after the amendment of its Human Rights Act in 2009, which ruled it illegal to discriminate against someone based on their sexual orientation, Bermuda held a referendum to see where the public stood on same-sex marriage. Only 45 per cent voted, leaving the question officially unanswered, but of the voters, more than 60 per cent were opposed. “Bermuda’s LGBTQ community is only a small part of the population,” Winston explains. “And when you have the majority voting on the rights of the minority? It’s…problematic.”
Winston and Greg found themselves at the centre of an historic case when the newly engaged couple answered the call to challenge Bermudian law. At the time, living in Canada, they were largely out of the fray, far away from what was playing out in Bermuda’s courts. But when his post-graduate permit expired, Winston left his job at Toronto’s Ripley’s Aquarium and took a position back home. Suddenly, he was in the thick of politics, finding himself alternately challenged and supported, and moving awkwardly through the world on defence.
By May 2017, the court found with the couple, concluding that marriage is a right which all citizens are owed by law. The legal success was short-lived, however; Parliament put forth a bill (a challenge rooted in religion), which soon evolved into The Domestic Partnership Act. Though other LGBTQ couples had married by then—including Winston and Greg—the bill passed into law and, once more, same-sex marriage was illegal.
Since then, as other couples have come forward to appeal the decision and same-sex marriage has, again, been deemed legal by the Bermudian courts; the government has, again, stepped forward, taking its appeal all the way to Bermuda’s Supreme Court. After three separate cases, same-sex marriage is still legal, though Parliament continues to fight it. The final challenge, which will be heard December 2020 by the U.K.’s Privy Council, will be their final appeal, the fate of same-sex marriage in Bermuda decided once and for all.
Winston and Greg have now lived together in Bermuda for three years, Winston loving his work at the aquarium, Greg an occupational therapist at the mental health hospital nearby. Both miss the freedom they had in Canada, where it wasn’t such a challenge to simply be themselves, to simply be together. As Winston put it in an interview with The Royal Gazette, “My being gay: I have as much choice in that as I do being black. In being left- or right-handed. In being a woman or a man.”
“It’s all about being visible. Just showing who you are, speaking about what’s important to you, allowing others to see you. It shows people they can be themselves too—that’s a fight in itself.”
Change may be slow to come to the conservative islands of Bermuda, but it is coming. Like anywhere, the members of its LGBTQ community work hard to be recognized and accepted. Bermuda celebrated its first Pride this past August, hosting the largest parade the islands have ever seen. “We expected a couple of hundred people,” Winston reports, thrilled with the event’s success, “but 5,000 showed up. It was a celebration of everything that’s come before it.”
Winston, who was in his twenties when he first came out, losing the support of family and friends, found its other forms of strength where he least expected. Support can often come quietly, he’s learned over the years—a like on social media, a photo, an article shared by someone he didn’t know supports the same cause as he. “It’s all about being visible,” he imparts. “Just showing who you are, speaking about what’s important to you, allowing others to see you. It shows people they can be themselves too—that’s a fight in itself.”
Winston doesn’t know where life will take him, but he does know it’s getting easier. “It’s woefully optimistic to expect everyone to love you for who you are,” he admits. “And that’s ok too.” For the young couple, their lives together reaching out ahead of them, there’s still plenty of work to be done to ensure everyone’s rights are recognized—whether in the courts or on the streets. But for now, on the islands of Bermuda, they’re learning though the water’s surface may look still, there’s always movement underneath, and sometimes farther below that, common ground.
This article was printed in the latest issue of Tiger magazine. Learn about our alumni, get community updates and find out where Ridley is heading next! Read more from our summer issue.