City of Vancouver working on proposed West End sex worker memorial
There's been a surge in individuals, businesses, and organizations claiming to be the first to do things. In this era of social media, such erroneous claims threaten to erase the pioneers, trailblazers, and historical figures who came before and often struggled under more difficult circumstances to create progress.
When it comes to LGBT communities, the erasure of the past is particularly a complicated issue because historically, queer individuals, organizations, and communities have been hidden, invisible, ignored, or marginalized. Much queer history has taken place in nightclubs or other temporary venues which no longer exist.
Even more invisible is the history of sex workers and communities in city.
An SFU geography class, studying the intersections of gender, sexuality, and space and taught by professor Claire Robson, organized a panel discussion at SFU Harbour Centre featuring various local LGBT community members who discussed the history of queer activism in the city.
One of the panel members was sex-worker advocate Jamie Lee Hamilton, who has been in and out of the sex trade for over 45 years and who spoke about the West End's tight-knit sex worker community, which no longer exists.
She called the period from the mid-1970s to the mid-1980s the "Golden Age of prostitution in Vancouver" because they rose up as activists and supported one another.
"It was a time when we were very much together as a community," she said. "It's nothing like it is today. We developed our own harm-reduction strategies. We kept the area a pimp-free zone."
She explained how West End sex workers became organized into a group called the Alliance for Safety of Prostitutes, that they created a newsletter called the Whoreganizer to educate and connect, and often took action, including marching to city hall.
However, she also called it a "turbulent time", as Vancouver city councillor Gordon Price was opposed to sex workers on Davie Street.
Hamilton talked about how a street activities bylaw created in 1981 fined sex workers and how some of the money from those fines was used to fund a study of prostitution in the area.
Coupled with campaigns by Concerned Residents of the West End (CROWE) and Shame the Johns, such efforts drove sex workers out of the area and pushed them further east, including to the Downtown Eastside. Consequently, many sex workers wound up missing or targets of convicted serial killer Robert William Pickton.
At a meeting held in the West End attended by civic politicians at the Anglican Church in 2008, Hamilton said she raised the issue of a civic apology and memorial to commemorate female and male sex workers.
"If you think about it, sex workers have been erased from the West End," she said. "There's nothing there that reminds one of the vibrant community that was there, and that's most unfortunate. So this memorial will be great because it's going to educate people and be a firm commemoration of our community that was there. I don't think ever again, at least in this city, will they ever be able to just to sweep the sex trade away."
According to City of Vancouver communications representative Jason Watson, city staff are continuing to work on an acknowledgement and memorial, which is expected to be revealed this fall.