The West End Sex Workers Memorial

In 1982 a local by-law expelled sex workers, many of them trans sex workers, from the area where they worked the on-street sex trade in Vancouver’s West End. Many of them were fined as they sought to continue carrying out their work. Pushed further out into Vancouver’s Eastern side, this forced displacement of sex workers drove many of them to work in industrial areas from which in at least 65 of them, many of them indigenous impoverished workers, would go missing in the next decades. It would not be until much later that, as a result of relentless grassroots work, the case of missing and murdered women, many of them sex workers, would be brought to public attention. Robert Pickton is known to have murdered at least 49 of them. He was prosecuted for the murder of only six of them. The sex workers displacement from the West End also contributed to the further symbolic and material divisions still in place today between the West and East sides of Vancouver along racial and class lines. While poorer sex workers were pushed out of the neighbourhood where they worked and many of them also lived, Vancouver’s West End went onto becoming the city’s famous “gayborough.”

 

Today, the City of Vancouver has formally paid back the full amount of money collected from sex workers’ fines – over $15,000 dollars – in the form of a public Sex Workers Memorial located in the very same place from which they were uprooted. In a truly historic moment, today, September 16, 2016, a fabulous memorial lamp post stood tall and firm on Jervis Street, an area where many of the on-street sex workers made their livelihoods during the 1970s and 1980s. It is located right outside an Anglican Church, where sex workers were able to find refuge during their working days in the area back then. The memorial lamp post stands now as a palpable reminder of a chapter of the city’s history and of the sex trade’s history not often told, or even known. While the government officials prepared to provide a sanitized version of the city in the face of Vancouver’s Expo 1986, sex workers did not simply vanish. Some of them survived until today. While the area became a gay entertainment area, catering largely to middle-class white gay men, some of those on-street surviving sex workers came back to join the memorial event today. The on-street sex workers may have disappeared from public view on this side of the city’s streets. Yet the indoor sex-trade is known to be alive and well in this same area. As Dr. Becki Ross explained during the formal public event today, Vancouver’s West End may actually not be a gayborough, but rather, proudly and rightly, a “hookerborough.”

 

Vancouver's West End Sex Workers Memorial

Vancouver’s West End Sex Workers Memorial

 

I join in echoing the inspiring messages that one can read at the four-sided base of

The West End Sex Workers Memorial’s lamp post:

 

“Today, we commemorate and honour their lives”

“In memory of their ongoing struggle for equality”

“People who lived and worked here from mid-1960s to 1984”

“Dedicated to a diverse community of sex workers.”

 

What a remarkable day!

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