Pioneering sex worker and LGBT rights advocate Jamie Lee Hamilton dies

    1 of 7 2 of 7

      The last time I saw Jamie Lee Hamilton was at the Red Umbrella march for sex workers' safety in June.

      Fittingly, the long-time sex worker posed with her friend, April Vallee, in front of the West End Sex Workers Memorial.

      It was a monument that Hamilton had worked so hard to create just three years earlier.

      Hamilton was in a joyful mood as she reminisced with old friends, including former NDP MP Svend Robinson, about working in the neighbourhood in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

      It was the heyday of the Vancouver sex trade, when there were enough eyes on the street to provide Hamilton and others with a fair measure of safety.

      She pointed to a window across the street. Then Hamilton noted that this was the apartment where one of the city's most famous sex workers, Wendy King, plied her trade, entertaining judges and other esteemed members of society.

      But even though Hamilton was in failing health last June, she hadn't lost her sense of humour—or her fire for justice.

      What galled her the most was that the Liberal government under Justin Trudeau had done nothing to repeal the Harper government's widely condemned Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act.

      This legislation criminalized the sale of sexual services between consenting adults and left family members and friends of sex workers vulnerable to prosecution if they enjoyed any of the financial benefits.

      Jamie Lee Hamilton adored Svend Robinson for his long-term advocacy for sex workers and the LGBT community.
      Charlie Smith

      This morning, Hamilton's friends are in mourning over her death after she developed cancer.

      But I suspect that her fondest wish would be for those who loved her to continue her legacy of advocacy for sex workers' safety. It was truly her life's work.

      There are many who will celebrate Hamilton's oft-stated support for an independent park board. That was certainly one of her passions.

      Others will fondly remember her opposition to keeping cetaceans in captivity. Hamilton certainly had a green inclination long before Greta Thunberg became a household name.

      When Jamie Lee Hamilton ran for the Vancouver Board of Education, she publicly opposed closing East Side schools.

      Still others will remember when she ran for the Vancouver Board of Education because she opposed shutting down East Side schools with significant Indigenous enrollment.

      Hamilton was proud of her Indigenous heritage and always supported candidates who supported Indigenous rights.

      Then there was her support for LGBT rights, which sometimes put her at odds with some in the community. A dozen years ago, she went public with her opposition to the increasing commercialization of the Pride parade. That didn't go over well with the Vancouver Pride Society.

      But Hamilton was a true pioneer who could speak with authenticity. She had marched in the first Pride parade, which was more of a protest, and recalled having tomatoes thrown at her.

      "It was a time to start showcasing and not fearing any of the oppression that was levelled at the community," Hamilton told the Straight in 2007. "It wasn't that long ago that all of our clubs were deemed illegal. They had to operate as private bottle clubs because you couldn't get licensing."

      Jamie Lee Hamilton ran for public office on many occasions.

      She was also the first Vancouver trans candidate to seek public office when she ran for council in 1996.

      All of us are a multiplicity of identities—and this was especially true of Hamilton. She represented a kaleidoscope of causes and perspectives.

      She was also a teacher, educating people in the media about transgender issues.

      Jamie Lee Hamilton ensured politicians were reminded about missing women by dumping shoes on the steps of Vancouver City Hall.

      But for me, she'll always be the one who fought tirelessly to remind Vancouverites of the horror of the murdered and missing women in the Downtown Eastside.

      She once dumped a pile of shoes on the steps of Vancouver City Hall to protest the lack of action and the police department's refusal to acknowledge that there might be serial killer at work.

      She repeatedly called for a reward in the face of opposition from the then chair of the police board, Philip Owen. 

      In 2013 after then chief justice Beverley McLachlin wrote a landmark ruling striking down three laws endangering sex workers, Hamilton broke out in tears.

      "Obviously, it's a bittersweet victory because of all the losses of our friends and loved ones," Hamilton told the Straight, referring to murdered sex workers. "It's also a vindication that sex workers are not criminals. What we engage in is not criminal. We can move forward now and, I think, work to reduce the harm to make a safer sex trade."

      McLachlin's ruling praised a safe house that Hamilton had created—an action led to her being charged.

      When the NPA refused to allow Jamie Lee Hamilton to seek an NPA nomination in 2008, her friend, Jim Deva, hosted a protest behind Little Sister's Book & Art Emporium.
      Charlie Smith

      The Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act was introduced by a former Conservative justice minister Peter MacKay, and it effectively quashed the positive impact of McLachlin's ruling.

      Since the mid 1980s, Hamilton advocated for sex workers' rights.

      She and others were kicked out of the West End by a 1984 court injunction, moving many of them to industrial areas where they were far more vulnerable to predators.

      The West End Sex Workers Memorial was created to keep this in the public's mind so something like that never happened again.

      But even today, sex workers don't enjoy safe working conditions.

      We owe it to Hamilton now to try to finally make this a reality in Canada.

      It's time for a parliamentarian to bring forward a private member's bill to decriminalize the sex trade.

      It could be called Jamie Lee's Law.

      In 2009, Jamie Lee Hamilton (right) participated in a trans protest outside Lu's Pharmacy, which was restricting service to "women born women".
      Charlie Smith

      Update

      Many people are commenting on Jamie Hamilton, who's currently the top-trending topic on Twitter in Vancouver. Below, you can see what's being said about her.

      Comments