Society

The Unrepentant Whore

How Jamie Lee Hamilton changed the way we look at Canada’s underclass

From the June 2010 magazine
Photograph by Shannon Mendes
Jamie Lee Hamilton at Queens Cross, Vancouver, March 2010

One day in the deep end of winter, 1998, it rained on Vancouver’s City Hall. It rained on the 6.9 Mercedes that pulled up to the entrance a little before noon. It rained on Jamie Lee Hamilton’s good swing coat as she emerged from the car and lugged out four bulging garbage bags. It rained on the fourteen media crews that watched her carry the bags up the steps, hair plastered to her face. It rained on all of them as she dumped sixty-seven pairs of stilettos at the city’s feet—one for every woman who she believed had gone missing from the Downtown Eastside.

Nobody knew that this was the start of the largest serial killer case in Canada’s history; nor that Robert Pickton was still, then, taking women back to his pig farm on the outskirts of the city to mutilate and murder them; nor that, more than a decade later, in 2009, a constitutional appeal would argue that our country had systematically imperilled the lives of these women with brutal laws that forced them to work in untenable conditions. All Hamilton knew was that women—sex workers—were disappearing and nothing was being done.

If missing women are silenced women, Hamilton has made it her mission to be fully present and accounted for. An aboriginal, transsexual sex worker from one of the country’s poorest neighbourhoods, she’s a kind of activist polyglot, able to speak with whatever voice best suits the situation. She presents as insistently at ease, adding “dear” and “honey” to her sentences like dollops of crème fraîche. Still, mention her name, and journalists, politicos, and armchair commentators turtle in their heads with alternating fear and exasperation: she’s infamous for her public and embarrassing arguments with anyone who crosses her. (Even one of her fiercest supporters told me, “You’d be safer writing a profile of a Mafia don.”)

Perhaps that’s why her letters requesting a meeting with the mayor had been ignored, leaving her no choice but to show up at City Hall in person—and her person can be as intimidating as her reputation. Her face is hearty and galvanized with energy, the strength of her shoulders set off against plunging necklines. When Mayor Philip Owen emerged, she picked up a red sequined stiletto to present to him, thinking she could ask for a meeting in front of rolling cameras. Owen bolted.

Following this initial embarrassment, she pitched a tent on the lawn of City Hall and slept there until, a few days later, it went missing. When she reported the theft from a phone inside the building, the police asked, “Do you have any suspects? ” Yes, she said in her gravelly voice: Mayor Philip Owen. City Hall gave her back the tent. But still no meeting.

Her final stand was soon afterward, on February 3, when she walked into a council meeting (having neglected to proceed through the required channels) and demanded an audience. The room emptied. But she stood at the mike for hours, anyway, waiting for a response. Once the media caught a whiff of “Crazy Shoe Lady, Part Three,” city manager Ken Dobell delivered the news: “Okay, you’ve got your meeting.”

“You’re just the top city bureaucrat,” returned Hamilton. “You get the mayor in his seat, on-camera, telling me I’ve got a meeting.” So Owen did, and the struggle of sexual outliers had a new poster child.

In 1969, while a team of drag queens and friends rioted against police at New York’s Stonewall Inn, sparking the North American gay rights movement, Jimmy Hamilton was a confused thirteen-year-old living in a Downtown Eastside housing project. His father—a union man who had worked at a foundry until silicosis of the lungs forced him into part-time work as a janitor at a burger joint—was furious that his son had turned out to be a “sissy.” His mother, the revered aboriginal rights activist Alice Hamilton, took him to the REACH Community Health Centre, where a doctor asked Jimmy, “Do you think you’re homosexual? ”

Blink. “What do you mean? ”

“Well,” he said, searching for some delicate definition, “do you feel like a girl? ”

“Oh, yes,” Jimmy said, and was sent out. His mother was called in. Fifteen minutes later, when the boy poked his head around the door again, he found her in tears.

It could have been worse. Homosexuality was legalized in Canada that year, so instead of undergoing therapeutic “cures” (the sexual equivalent of an exorcism, and about as useful) Jimmy rode the bus from his housing project out to the University of British Columbia, where his counselling sessions were videotaped for research purposes by Dr. William Maurice in a room next to a daycare for psychiatric patients. Looking around, Jimmy asked his doctor, “Am I crazy? ”

“No,” said Maurice, “and don’t let anyone tell you it’s wrong.”

Jimmy became the first boy in Canada to be medically sanctioned with a female identity—not that it made any difference at school. He was called “fag,” “fairy,” and “freak” by his schoolmates; phys ed classes, where he was forced to shower with boys, were particularly painful and alien. Jimmy’s solution was simply to stop going. He had heard there was a burgeoning gay scene on the Granville strip, in particular at the White Lunch cafeteria (supposedly thus named to assure customers they didn’t use Chinese cooks). There, he met five co-conspirators, all about fifteen years old.

One of his new friends told him about turning tricks beneath the stately Birks clock at Granville and Georgia. When Jimmy hit the hot spot, a pleasant man in his fifties rolled up and offered to pay for a blow job. They did the deed in the nearby Drake Steam Baths. “Easiest money I had ever made,” Hamilton says, and growing up in the projects, easy was something money had never been before. He started hustling regularly: he could score forty bucks for oral or a hand job dressed as a boy, and double that if he was dressed as a girl.

The six friends would pool their resources and rent a room at the Palms Hotel, where they could practise applying makeup and walking in high heels; then they’d head over to the White Lunch to flirt and pick up men. Because transexual sex workers are rare, they become a coveted, precious commodity. They become, often for the first time in their lives, beloved for who they are. The manager of the White Lunch, Molly, was not such an admirer. “You girls are dressing far too slutty,” she finally spat. “You can’t come in here till you learn how to dress like proper ladies.”

The kids bridled at being ousted from the tiny space they’d carved out for themselves. They retreated to the Palms to plot their revenge. Ambushing the White Lunch dressed in even sluttier clothes—fishnet stockings, micro-miniskirts, loudest possible makeup—they lined up at the counter, reached their hands past the sneeze guard like a team of ballerinas at rehearsal, and stuck their fingers into a corresponding line of pies.

Behind any individual life looms a whorl of politics. In 1972, the vagrancy law, outlawing pretty much all street life, was deemed a relic of ancient morality and replaced with what’s called the soliciting law, which meant sex-oriented vagrants could still be shuffled along. Hunky-dory, said the police. Fine, said the residents of aspirational neighbourhoods. Then, in 1978, the Supreme Court redefined soliciting as pressing or persistent behaviour; simply saying, “Want a date? ” didn’t qualify.

This proved problematic, since the murder of a twelve-year-old shoeshine boy in an apartment above a Yonge Street body rub parlour the year before had prompted raids of massage parlours in Toronto. (There had been similar campaigns in Vancouver even earlier.) Masses of sex workers were pushed onto the street. Needing a legal mechanism to shoo them, the government passed the communication law in 1985, which criminalized any communication for the purposes of prostitution in a public place (including cars).

It was the end of what Hamilton calls “the golden age of prostitution.” By night, she would dress up as Cher and perform “Gypsies, Tramps, and Thieves” for audiences at a downtown Vancouver gay bar called BJs. By late night, she would join hundreds of other sex workers strolling the West End, a pimp-free “drive-in brothel” where transexuals, boys, and “fish” (biological women) could look out for one another and openly ply their trade.

Gordon Price, the director of the City Program at Simon Fraser University, was then leading CROWE (Concerned Residents of the West End) in the push to remove sex workers, and he remembers things differently. There were pimps, he says, dangerous ones, and everyone from schoolchildren to grandmothers was being solicited. Price becomes highly excitable when he discusses the past. “A new status quo, with sex workers working happily among residents, simply was not an option,” he says. “It was us or them.”

On the right side of Price’s line in the sand: the West End’s thriving gay community, which had moved with breathtaking speed toward empowerment since 1969. Fourteen years later, the gay bookstore Little Sister’s and AIDS Vancouver, two totems of political will, came to life; by 1985, the city even had a gay newspaper. Homosexuals were real citizens, and capable of pushing other minorities around. Hamilton, who’d started on hormone therapy in 1977, thereby slowly and permanently distinguishing herself from the drag queens, remembers being barred from performing at one gay bar. Sex workers, meanwhile, were seen as “vermin that had to be exterminated,” says Becki Ross, chair of the Women’s and Gender Studies Department at ubc. “They had to be removed to give people a sense they were living in a ‘contamination-free zone.’”

The pressure from residents grew to such a fever pitch that it finally resulted in a 1984 injunction by BC Supreme Court chief justice Allan McEachern; hundreds of sex workers were pushed out of the West End and, pursued by the communication law, into increasingly desolate spaces, until they were finally allowed to rest in the industrial no man’s land of the Downtown Eastside. Since it had last been Hamilton’s regular haunt, the city’s central library, an Eaton’s, and several offices had closed up shop, leaving a hole filled by deinstitutionalized psychiatric patients, whose presence encouraged a street-based drug trade, which in turn promoted theft and violent crime.

Pushing prostitutes there consolidated the city’s undesirables into one messy (yet handily avoidable) package. “There was no precedent for this in Western jurisprudence,” says Ross. And yet she points out that no one notable in the labour movement, the feminist movement, or the gay rights movement stepped forward to protect sex workers. Ross’s research has led her to believe that their unchallenged relocation was the seedbed of the scores of Pickton murders that followed.

say the state created the killing fields of the Downtown Eastside,” declares Hamilton, upping the ante, as ever. People tend to roll their eyes when she makes such accusations. But she never had the luxury of being politically neutral. When Expo came in 1986, she organized protests against the displacement of those in low-income housing; she founded a sub-local of the Canadian Union of Public Employees, as well as a hot meal program and food bank for transsexuals. She became a Native Princess, a Ms. Gay Vancouver, and, inevitably, an honorary member of the travelling cast of A Chorus Line.

In the fall of 1996, Hamilton entered the municipal election race, winning herself pride of place as the first transsexual person in Canada to run for public office. When she didn’t win the seat, she used her connections to open a now-infamous safe space on Hastings Street called Grandma’s House, where sex workers could stop in to warm up, grab a coffee and spare clothing, and use the Internet. Angel funding came from two society women, Jacqui Cohen (heiress of the Army & Navy discount chain) and Cynnie Woodward (of the department store family). Provincial and city governments backed her with “about $27,000” each year.

But not even the beleaguered DTES community would put up with what it perceived as sanctioned sex work in its front yard. The local business association drove the outfit to a nearby residential street, where it again incurred the wrath of locals. Someone started making anonymous death threats on the phone. (When Hamilton alerted the police, the officer who came by said, “If I had a place like this in my neighbourhood, I don’t think I’d be happy about it either.”)

She was staffing Grandma’s House one night when, at four in the morning, a slight aboriginal woman arrived with a pair of guys, drunk off their asses. A third was waiting in the car outside. “I’ve got nowhere to go,” she said, eyes saucer wide. “Can I do this in one of the rooms here? ” Hamilton was perfectly aware of the bawdy house law that made that an illegal option (it was introduced with the vagrancy law in the late nineteenth century). But she decided that sending this woman into a car with three overheated men wasn’t an ethical option: “She’d have been violated. We knew by then there was a serial killer on the prowl, and I just couldn’t send her away.”

Over the next few months, at the height of Hamilton’s celebrity (thanks to her antics at City Hall), rumours surfaced that other working girls were servicing johns at Grandma’s House, and government funding was pulled in January of 2000. One day that August, Hamilton was stepping into a cab, en route to a radio interview with CKNW, when she was arrested on the sidewalk, charged with running a bawdy house. After eight hours, she was released on the condition that she shutter Grandma’s House.

Hamilton is, famously, “an unrepentant whore.” Is she also an unrepentant madam? Sitting with her recently, I ask point-blank, “So, were you running a bawdy house? ” She looks nonplussed: “Well, yeah.” A hand flicks at some imaginary dirt on a cushion. “But so is every five-star hotel in this country.

“And you know what I really resented? They called it a common bawdy house. Listen, there was nothing common about it.”

If Hamilton gets her way, of course, bawdy houses will become common, and some wonder whether the sex trade will be hurt by the trappings of legitimacy, such as income tax and EI premiums. To some extent, minorities are ruined by their success; civil liberties denude civil righteousness. For better or worse, though, the long-distance destination for sex workers appears to be homogenization. The police, at least, are less interested in persecuting them. Between 1998 and 2008, total prostitution charges in Canada plummeted from 5,950 down to 2,535.

And Libby Davies, MP for Vancouver East, is among a small group of politicians who are starting to recognize this essentially useless voting demographic. “The laws we have are not protecting sex workers,” she says. (Indeed, Hamilton has a list of twenty-five women she claims have gone missing since Pickton was arrested; it’s increasingly likely there are more killers like him.) “The key point is this: I don’t believe the state should be involved in shutting down consensual sexual activities between adults, whether money is involved or not. The state should only be involved where there’s violence or exploitation.”

Leading the charge to keep the state out of prostitutes’ bedrooms is Alan Young, the gregarious, mustachioed Toronto lawyer who argued before the Superior Court of Ontario last year that Canada’s laws deny sex workers the safety they are entitled to under the Constitution. Grandma’s House was front and centre in his case. “Jamie created a safe house among the lowest of the low, and they shut ’em down,” he says. “I needed to show the judge that even when you took measures to protect yourself, the law will sanction you. If the law prevents people from protecting themselves, that’s not the law.”

Whatever the outcome of Young’s case, it will be appealed and appealed again. But it’s the start of a multi-tiered approach, and after the preliminary fury of grassroots activism like Hamilton’s it’s only with the collaboration of suits like Young and Davies that real change can occur. Davies points to Vancouver’s drug policy (which has pioneered safe injection sites) as a model for future work with the sex industry: “You’ve got academics, bureaucrats, elected people, drug users, West Side parents, and people in the media all in on the conversation. When they all converged on drug issues, it became something very powerful. The problem is that it’s a much more fractious proposition once you start talking about sex.”

You only have to look at the politically correct (and horribly cumbersome) string of letters that labels the LGBTTIQQ2S community to know she’s right. And it’s almost taken for granted that gay men would break away from so much baggage. Why would they be concerned that sex workers are being murdered, or that transsexuals are still not explicitly protected from discrimination anywhere in Canada except the Northwest Territories? Well, maybe because it’s not just hypocritical to desert another minority after you’ve gained your own civil rights; it’s impolitic, too.

We gay folk may consider ourselves beyond the struggles of a person like Jamie Lee Hamilton (happily consuming our Will & Grace and purchasing our same-sex wedding cards with pride). But consider that while we report feelings of safety to our friends at Statistics Canada, the numbers tell us homosexuals are still two to four times more likely to be victims of violent crime. Nor has the wholesale absorption of hetero-normative marriage rights taken place: in the last census, only 7,460 people nationwide identified themselves as being part of a same-sex marriage. In the US, Maine’s population recently approved a referendum overturning a same-sex marriage law; around the same time, New York and New Jersey both opted to disallow gay marriage. People change quickly (their minds, their genitals, whatever), but public opinion turns like a freighter.

When the New York State senate was preparing to vote on the rights of its gay constituents, straight senator Diane Savino—a supporter of same-sex marriage—said to her gay colleague, Senator Tom Dwayne, “My only hope, Tom, is that… we can learn from you, and that you don’t learn from us.” What she may have been getting at is that there’s value, irreplaceable value, in the minority experience. That the section of society that most discomfits the masses is precisely the one that can teach us something about the social hierarchy by which we all benefit and suffer to varying degrees.

The more time I spend with Hamilton, the more her multiple statuses (transsexual, sex worker, aboriginal, working class) appear to slip over my vision, like those successive lenses at the eye doctor’s that finally bring the lowest letters into focus.

On Kingsway, the street that defies Vancouver’s grid system and runs at a disruptive angle across town, Hamilton has furnished a second-floor space with all the accoutrement necessary to create her idea of a community centre for trans women and their admirers. The door to Queens Cross is marked with the street address 1874½—a Harry Potter–esque nod to the unregulated spaces in between.

My eyes have to adjust to the dim lighting. Hamilton—a proud shopkeep—sits behind a cash register in a vestibule. Normally, men pay a $20 entrance fee to socialize here. She gives me a free pass (it’s a weekday, and early in the evening, so we’re alone anyway). We lounge by candlelight on overstuffed white leather sofas. Around us, there are numerous mannequin heads sporting wigs. At the rear, I see a room with a massage table, and there’s a video room to the left. The space drips with makeshift sensuality, but “it operates within city guidelines,” she assures me.

Hamilton is at ease in her boudoir, her legs curled beneath her. She’s finally given up on a career in politics, after three further failed attempts at public office in 1999, 2000, and 2008. She tells me she won’t run again, because her sex work will always be used against her. “They’d only want me if I said I was reformed. But I’m not reformed. Listen, I’m fifty-four and can still work in the sex industry. I’m glad.” Her political will is too brazen, too tart, in any case, for her to serve in milquetoast council chambers. When a certain feminist group recently decided to inform Hamilton of her own safety interests, she told them the same thing she used to tell pimps who tried to work their way into the West End strolls: “If you really want to be an expert, you need to go home, put on a dress, and come suck some cock.”

I ask her whether she considers herself lonely in her identity. Is she, hovering there at the multi-hued hub of her own Venn diagram, a minority among minorities? She studies the flame from a red candle, then starts to answer: “You know, I just live my life…” It’s no more complicated than that.

“Be a gentleman,” she urges, “and walk me to my bus stop.”

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