A year ago, Eve Teo came to Taiwan for a visit and walked into Loveboat because she wanted to buy a rainbow flag. Loveboat is a lesbian specialty store; an eclectic space stocked with clothes, sex toys, and books. A cafe sits at the front complete with a couch flanked by a grand rainbow flag. Little did Teo know, the visit would change her life.
"I was just traveling. I had tried a lot of times to find what I really wanted to do," Teo says. "I wanted to find the core of what's making me live on this earth." Loveboat's mission especially resonated with her. Inspired, she went back home to Singapore, packed up all her belongings, and now works as an employee at the store.
"In Singapore we have the Pink Dot, which is an annual LGBTQ event. But other than that and a couple of hotlines, there's not much in terms of resources," Teo says. "The mission at Loveboat is not just about uniting the LGBTQ community. Ultimately, it's about helping people and giving them a space. The owner of this place is focused on unleashing our inner potential."
Loveboat is an oasis in Asia, where LGBT rights are still quite limited. Opened in 2004 by Vivi Lee in Taipei City, it is Asia's first lesbian store. In the beginning, they sold chest binders and clothes. Now there's stacks of gay literature, a haberdashery of men's blazers, cheeky nude art on the walls, and an open cabinet full of sleek sex toys.
Most importantly, Loveboat also doubles as an event space. There are sections of the store dedicated to I Ching readings and massages. They hold monthly salons, where people come together to discuss topics ranging from business networking to dating.
"I wanted to plug into the gay scene in Taipei, but I'm not interested in the clubbing side of the gay scene," Hunter White, an American customer says. White is a regular at the events. "I was just looking for a social outlet for LGBTQ people and a place to hang out and meet people. Loveboat, and the other stores right near it, are the only places in Taipei that really offer that."
At its core, Loveboat is a community resource.
"We expanded based on what customers wanted," marketing director Olivia Wu says. Wu has a similar story to Teo. Eight years ago, she relocated from Los Angeles to Taipei just for the store.
"I believe in it," she says. "It's what kept me here. We have customers who come in once a year and update us on life." She adds that there are people from mainland China, Hong Kong, Singapore, and Malaysia who will fly into Taipei as much as once a month for their events or to just stop by and chat.
In many ways, Taipei is a haven for the gay community. It is considered the most LGBTQ-friendly city in Asia and it is the host to largest gay parade in the region. Gay marriage is not yet legal in Taiwan, but within the last couple of years, same-sex partners have been able to register and receive benefits like hospital visitation rights. In the last 13 years, discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in education and employment has been banned. It is suspected that Taiwan may be the first Asian nation to permit marriage equality. In a poll conducted last year, 71 percent of Taiwanese residents were in favor of same-sex marriage. The island's president elect, Tsai Ing-wen, is known for being a strong advocate of LGBTQ rights.
"In the beginning when we opened, there was quite a bit of hate talk against the LGBTQ community in Taipei. But having the physical store really changed the tide. People have a place to go to now," she says. "Also our neighbors see who we are and realize that we're all ultimately the same."
For Wu, her main wish is for more community collaboration and events between LGBTQ and non-LGBTQ groups. She believes marriage equality in Taiwan is inevitable; the main issue is awareness.
"I want to magnify this place," she says. "We can't do everything by ourselves. There needs to be a collaborative effort between the people and the government and between LGBTQ and non-LGBTQ groups."
Wu points to a collection of handwritten notes on the wall. They are notes left by visitors. A handful of them are penned by prominent LGBT organizers throughout Asia. They are people who have made the visit to Taipei and specifically Loveboat to see what is possible.
"People look to us as a model. We want more people to be aware of this diversity and of love," Wu says. "If it happens for Taiwan, the rest of Asia will follow."