UPDATED: Obituary: Vancouver’s Jamie Lee Hamilton remembered as a tireless advocate for the underdog

Or, that time Jamie Lee Hamilton dressed me up as a sex-trade worker for a story. Story updated to include memorial service information.

Update: A celebration of life will take place Jan. 25 at 2 p.m. at St. Paul’s Anglican Church, 1130 Jervis St. Dress code: “Fabulous.”

I met Jamie Lee Hamilton just weeks after starting at the Courier, almost 20 years ago.

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And, even though our professional friendship ended some years ago, I continued to admire her tenacity and determination to hold (many) politicians’ feet to the fire. So I was shocked and saddened to hear of her death from cancer early Monday morning, Dec. 23, at Cottage Hospice. Jamie Lee was 64.  

It was that determination, which some might also describe as “stubbornness,” that also led to the end of our relationship. Years ago, Jamie Lee was offended by a column a colleague had written, which both she and I found homophobic, and she called me out on Twitter for not quitting my job in protest.

Those who knew Jamie Lee understood that with her there was no grey area when it came to social justice — or injustice. And when I refused to quit my job, she was pissed — and that was that for our previously friendly working relationship.

I met Jamie Lee after setting up a meeting to interview her about the closing of Grandma’s House on Pandora Street, a safe haven she created in the Downtown Eastside for sex-trade workers, which was closed by police in 2000.

Jamie Lee had been charged with running a common bawdy house and she told me at that time she started the house as a way to keep sex-trade workers safe at a time she was convinced there was a serial killer stalking women in the Downtown Eastside — and she was right.

In 2002, pig farmer Robert “Willy” PIckton was arrested and charged with two counts of first-degree murder. In 2005, Pickton was charged with the first-degree murder of 27 women and, in 2007, was convicted of six counts of second-degree murder.

But that all happened after Jamie Lee had been hollering from the rooftops that something was wrong, that marginalized women were disappearing in alarming numbers, and that the mayor and council of the day were more concerned about an arsonist setting fire to garages on the city’s West Side than the almost 70 women who had vanished into thin air.

Out of frustration on a rainy day in 1998, Jamie Lee dragged four garbage bags up the steps of city hall, before she emptied the contents out in front of waiting media. There, scattered across the steps, were 67 stiletto heels, one for each woman from the Downtown Eastside Hamilton believed to be missing.

But it wasn’t just sex-trade workers who Jamie Lee championed. Her activism was far reaching and included the fight for Trans rights, Indigenous peoples, the homeless and those living in poverty in the Downtown Eastside. She also turned her ire to what she called the “poverty pimps” running non-profit agencies and politicians at all three levels of government she thought needed to be held accountable.

It was that passion that pushed her to run for office and, in 1996, Jamie Lee became the first transgender person to seek public office in Canada. Jamie Lee also later ran for school board and park board, which is when she took on the moniker of “Queen of the Parks.”

On a personal note, Jamie Lee was also a great source of juicy news tips and gossip and kept me in the loop of any bureaucratic scandals she perceived taking place in the Downtown Eastside, an area of the city she loved and called home.

It was Jamie Lee’s concern about sex-trade workers that convinced her — to convince me — that I literally had to walk a mile in their shoes. Jamie Lee was alarmed that volunteers from a Christian school in the Fraser Valley were pushing sex-trade workers further into the more dangerous shadows due to their efforts.

Which was how I found myself at yet another one of Jamie Lee’s odd collection of rental spaces, this time in a warehouse just north of Hastings Street, with her applying my makeup and (gigantic) blonde wig. Jamie Lee then decided my name for the evening should be “Shiloh,” and we set off to do some street walking.

We weren’t anywhere close to a main street when a car slowed to a stop near us and the passenger window slid down. With Jamie Lee’s encouragement, and much to her amusement, I tottered over to the car in a pair of borrowed high-heels and leather skirt. In response to a question from the driver about price, I purposely offered a number that immediately killed the negotiations and I’ll never forget what Jamie Lee said to me as I walked back towards her.

“Oh honey,” she said with that laugh. “You’d make a terrible sex-trade worker, but I give you points for effort.”

Not 10 minutes later, we were approached by a group of four young volunteers offering us hot chocolate, and I could see Jamie Lee raise one eyebrow towards me, with a “told you so” smile on her face.

I wrote a feature story about that night that garnered me a Canadian Community Newspaper Award, but that wasn’t the only time a news tip from Jamie Lee ended up with me winning a journalism award — after again spending hours in an awkwardly sexual situation. Jamie Lee was furious a porn theatre on Main Street was charging sex-trade workers extra money to enter the theatre and had taken the doors off the stalls in the women’s bathroom.

So, on a Saturday afternoon, we paid our money and entered the Venus Theatre and, let’s just say, everything she had told me was true. Jamie Lee had forewarned me I’d likely see some live sex acts and people smoking drugs, but I still wasn’t quite prepared for what unfolded in the next hour or more.

After witnessing some pretty lewd sexual acts, it was one scene that stood out to me and demonstrated just how much Jamie Lee was appreciated for her activism. As we walked along the floor at the front of theatre, a woman was performing oral sex on a man who at the same time was smoking crack.

The woman glanced at us as we walked passed and, after recognizing Jamie Lee, momentarily stopped what she was doing and yelled over, “Thank you for everything you do for us. I love you.”

In response, Jamie Lee replied, “You too dear, are you OK?”

Then she whispered to me, “We need to help them, because no one else will.”

And that’s the image of her I will always remember — Jamie Lee, standing tall in front of an oversized movie screen showing pornography — and, as always, championing the underdog.



This story has been updated since it was originally posted to include information about the celebration of life for Jamie Lee Hamilton.


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