3 min

Goodbye, Mama Karen

Community leader was Mama to so many

HOW MANY OF US DID SHE ADOPT? 'Countless people would come to Vancouver to come out and Karen would take them under her wing and protect them,' says Doug Hall, one of many to call her Mama over the years. Credit: COURTESY OF DOUG HALL

Doug Hall first met Mama Karen right after he came out at the age of 25. “She basically adopted me and we became family,” says Hall, now 47.

Hall’s story is not unique. Mama Karen De Vander Vogue, who reigned as Emperor XV of the Dogwood Monarchist Society (DMS) from 1987-88 and later served as DMS president from 1996-97, was Mama to so many in our community.

“She was one of the first female emperors,” Hall recalls. “She was always bucking the system and was groundbreaking in everything she did. She didn’t like injustice; she was strong-minded and very loving.

“Mama Karen worked at Celebrities at the coat check,” he continues. “Countless people would come to Vancouver to come out and Karen would take them under her wing and protect them.”

“I was dropped off on her doorstep at 21 with $10 in my pocket,” recalls adopted son Jainni, now 46. “She was emperor of Vancouver at the time.  She took me to Hamburger Mary’s. Two drag queens were hitting on me. Mama Karen turned to me and said, ‘How would you like to be my son?’

“I said yes and she said okay, and turned around and told the drag queens to leave me alone. She was very protective.

“We lived together and there was never a dull moment,” Jainni continues. “When she was Emperor that woman had so many headdresses and gowns that the apartment was actually decorated. I will always remember her in high heel shoes because she was always in them, until she was told she had to wear flats. It was the ’80s and the heels were half-shoe and half-metal. Always four inch, minimum.

“Everybody knew Karen was walking down the street because of the click, click, click of the shoes.”

“She always had time for people,” adds Hall. “I don’t recall one instance where she turned someone away who needed her.”

“When I was a kid all of maybe 16, I ran away from home,” recalls Glenn Eden. “I made my way to the West End of Vancouver. I was totally enthralled with the nightlife, the excitement, the intrigue, and sure enough I started to get myself into trouble. Karen talked to me as though she was my Mama, and she would call my real mother on a regular basis to let Mom know I was okay,” he says.

“She insisted that I go back to school. She was always so supportive and loving,” Eden continues. “Karen made me what I am today. She made me strong. She made me think of others. She helped me through my youth. There are so few people out there in today’s society like Mama Karen.”

Andre Tardif met Mama Karen in the 1970s. “I had a gay roommate who befriended Karen. One night he wasn’t feeling well, so she took him to the hospital and it was discovered he had leukemia. Karen went back to Winnipeg, where he was originally from, and stayed with him until he passed.”

Jim Dreichel was in a straight marriage when he met Mama Karen. “When I came out, it was rough for me. Karen was very grounding for me. She was like a fine thread of gold, very strong of spirit, she was effortlessly wound in the lives of so many. She led by example, not intent. She is a trailblazer, a guide, an anchor and a friend.”

“I could always count on her to give me a hug when I needed it, or to let me know that everything was going to be all right,” recalls Laura McDiarmid who met Mama Karen at the bars.

“She felt like she was Mama. My girlfriend and I would have a falling out and Mama was always there. Maybe I am old school, but that was the kind of glue that kept our community together.”

Jamie Lee Hamilton met Mama Karen in 1971. “We met through the hookers on Davie St, we became very close friends,” she says. “It was a glorious time in Vancouver, the golden age of prostitution, very glamorous. You were part of a community, we partied together, lived together, turned tricks together, looked out for one another.

“She taught me how to be safe in the sex trade, how to operate, essentially. She also taught me never to feel any shame regarding that. She modelled how prostitution could be carried out with dignity and respect,” Hamilton says.

“She was a pioneer with her bravery to get surgery at a very early period,” Hamilton continues. “It gave people like myself someone to model after.”

Mama Karen was also on the front lines when AIDS hit, Hamilton says. “In 1987 when Premier Vander Zalm was in office and they were trying to pass AIDS quarantine legislation, Mama Karen worked hard against it on the coalition for responsible health legislation.”

Mama Karen passed away Jul 7. She was 70.