Jamie Lee Hamilton had spirit and moxie. She was innovative, generous, funny, fierce and opinionated, and her death represents a great loss for Vancouver.
Those were among the words friends had for Hamilton, a longtime advocate for transgender and sex workers who died Monday at age 64.
David C. Jones, a Vancouver entertainer and writer, last saw Hamilton on Saturday, when she was baptized. He and a group of Hamilton’s other friends had filled her room at the Cottage Hospice, where she had been receiving care since Dec. 9, to sing Amazing Grace.
Hamilton was very weak that day and she could only speak in single words at a time rather than full sentences. What Jones told her then serves as a last goodbye between the two friends.
“I said you are an amazing person and you have done so much for the city and for me, and you’re a great friend and I love you.”
Contrast that with their first interaction, when Hamilton publicly criticized Jones over a stance he held on an issue. Hamilton held strong opinions, but she also had the ability to separate people from actions with which she disagreed. The two eventually became close friends, so close even that she allowed him to buy a trio of her outfits for use in a panto of Rumpelstiltskin.
Hamilton began to transition in 1969 so that she could live in the world as a woman, as friend Becki Ross put it, and she started to work in the sex industry as a teenager.
Ross, a sociology professor at the University of B.C., has known and worked with Hamilton since the mid-1990s, when she ran for Vancouver city council. It was the first of several political campaigns for Hamilton, who also ran for Vancouver park board and school board.
Hamilton was among the first to sound the alarm that a serial killer was preying on sex workers in Vancouver. She protested police inaction in 1998 when she dumped 67 pairs of stilettos on the steps of Vancouver City Hall to raise awareness about missing women.
“There were some individual police officers who were sympathetic,” Hamilton said of that period. “But the political opinion of the police department was obscene: That (the missing women) may have moved away and there was no proof of a serial killer.”
Hamilton established and operated Grandma’s House on Pandora Street as a safe haven in the Downtown Eastside for sex workers. But it was closed as a “common bawdy house” by police in 2000.
“That wasn’t the sole purpose of the house,” Hamilton told The Vancouver Sun that year, adding that it was also a refuge where prostitutes could get a meal, clothing and access to street nurses. “Obviously, the police have a different take on that.”
Robert Pickton was arrested two years later and charged with 27 counts of first-degree murder of women who had disappeared from the Downtown Eastside. He ultimately confided that he had killed 49 and he was convicted in 2007 of six counts of murder.
In 2016, Hamilton and Ross co-founded Canada’s first sex work memorial outside St. Paul’s Anglican Church, at the West End intersection of Jervis and Pendrell streets. The memorial, a retro lamp post with a red bulb, honours sex workers in the neighbourhood who were forced out by city hall, police and the provincial government in the 1980s. Hamilton was among those who were violently expelled from the area, Ross said.
Hamilton fought every day for decades for the decriminalization of sex work, and she spoke as a guest lecturer at UBC, the University of Victoria, Simon Fraser University, Capilano University and Douglas College, Ross said.
Hamilton returned earlier this year to the West End to live before she entered the hospice in early December.
Ross last saw her friend on Dec. 12, when she was still in high spirits.
“I just did not know, and I don’t think anyone did, how compromised her body was, and how she just wouldn’t survive this, because she’d survived everything else,” Ross said through tears.
“To me, she was just always so fierce and undaunted and unflagging in her drive to live and to snatch every bit of meaning and pleasure and everything worthwhile out of life that she could.”