Knowing her days were numbered, Jamie Lee Hamilton advised loved ones that her celebration of life must be nothing short of “fabulous.”
They came through on Saturday with a standing-room-only memorial at the St. Paul’s Anglican Church on Jervis Street, near the Davie Village. Hundreds packed the pews to mourn Hamilton in black but also in sequins, face paint, feathers, flowers and fishnets. Politicians of all stripes came to pay their respects.
Between thoughtful poems and sombre prayers, they stood to sing and dance along to Aretha Franklin’s Respect and Eurythmics’ Sisters Are Doing It For Themselves.
Hamilton entered the Cottage Hospice in Vancouver on Dec. 9 after several months of losing her strength to cancer. She died two weeks later on Dec. 23. She was 64.
A longtime advocate for sex workers, low-income residents, and Indigenous and LGBTQ2S+ people, Hamilton was a transgender, Two-Spirit and Métis Cree woman who fought injustice and forced politicians to act.
Longtime friend Becki Ross delivered the eulogy, thanking Hamilton’s loved ones for gathering to honour their “dear friend, comrade and sister sh-t-disturber,” to great laughter.
Ross reminded mourners of Hamilton’s early battles against discrimination as a transgender teen, her entrepreneurial spirit and her love of renting penthouses to stage elaborate parties.
In 1996, Hamilton became the first openly transgender person to run for office in Canada, for Vancouver city council. It was the first of several campaigns that also included runs for the park and school boards.
“While never formally elected, Jamie Lee committed her life to enacting justice,” Ross said. “At every opportunity, she flexed her civic muscle.”
Hamilton fought for decriminalization of adult sex work, supervised injection sites, affordable housing, and the upkeep and expansion of recreational facilities, Ross said.
She fought against cetaceans in captivity, a hydroelectric substation in Nelson Park and the censorship of queer porn by customs at the U.S.-Canada border.
In 2016, Hamilton and Ross co-founded Canada’s first sex workers’ memorial, outside St. Paul’s Anglican Church.
“It stands as a majestic reckoning,” Ross said.
“Whorephobia, misogyny, transphobia and racism must never again rule the West End.”
The memorial, a retro lamppost 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.
She returned to the beloved neighbourhood in July 2019 after 35 years of “exile” to live out her final months, Ross said.
“A month after her passing, what do I miss?” Ross said.
“Jamie Lee’s forthrightness, integrity and humour. Her laughter was like champagne, all bubbly and rich. Jamie Lee identified fiercely as a woman and she had great style, fashion and glamour to showcase her femininity.”
Ross said Hamilton loved Chinese cuisine and radical social justice. She was happily single and child-free by choice, and “unapologetically and flagrantly non-monogamous.” She was a mentor to LGBT and Two-Spirit youth, and proud of her family.
“From her start to her end, Jamie Lee was a true original,” Ross said.
“She forged her path from adversity. She was passionately determined to make a difference. In this world, she did that. Our city, our province, our country became wiser, more equitable and more sparkly because of Jamie Lee’s lifetime effort and achievements. I miss her terribly, I will miss her forever.”
During a quiet moment of reflection, Reverend Philip Cochrane asked Hamilton’s loved ones to dwell on how their lives’ paths had crossed.
He read a passage from the book of Isaiah describing the need to maintain justice and do what is right, and explained how it described Hamilton, too.
“Back in the day, in Judeo-Christian sort of terms, we would call those people ‘prophets,’” Cochrane said.
“(They) speak out and challenge injustice wherever they find it, and keep nagging and nagging until something is done about it. To call people back to justice, to mercy, to love and compassion, (it) seems to me that that is exactly what Jamie Lee did.”
Later in the church’s lower hall, Hamilton’s sister, nieces and close friends shared stories about her life, while those in the packed room enjoyed cupcakes decorated with rainbows and red umbrellas, and drank tea.
Niece Tracy Letain recalled the day she and her sister Katherine learned they would from then on be calling Hamilton “auntie.”
That change came easy for them, Letain said.
“That’s the wonderful thing about being children — acceptance and love. They don’t know how to hate. If only people never lost the pureness when they grew up, I think her life experience would have been better,” she said.
“But despite all of this, Jamie was a survivor. She spent her entire adult life fighting to make the lives of her community better. She fought for those who did not have a voice and she had no fear of any consequences.”
Hamilton began to transition in 1969 so that she could live in the world as a woman, Ross recently explained, and started to work in the sex industry as a teenager.
She 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.
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.
Hamilton opened “Grandma’s House,” a safe house for women in the sex industry, and later “Pandora’s Box,” another brothel and refuge shut down by police in 2000, Ross said.
In 2013, the Supreme Court of Canada unanimously struck down the country’s anti-prostitution laws, recognizing they were unconstitutional and a threat to the lives, liberty and security of the person, Ross said.
Hamilton also spoke as a guest lecturer at UBC, the University of Victoria, Simon Fraser University, Capilano University and Douglas College. She was valued as a consultant and intellectual, Ross said.
— With files from Matt Robinson and Harrison Mooney