Giving space with Pride

Deccan Chronicle.  | Ashley Tellis

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People’s Choice café is a place where queer and trans voices get together, laugh, perform and celebrate identities.

Smith’s courage and perserverence in opening the twin cities’ first café is not just about its being queer.

Tucked away among nondescript houses in a residential neighbourhood in Sainikpuri, is a brightly coloured house that is People’s Choice café, the brainchild of the plucky, spirited Hephzibah Smith. It is a queer café, catering mainly to the queer community but allies are welcome.

Smith’s courage and perserverence in opening the twin cities’ first café is not just about its being queer. “I came up with this concept three years ago but the time did not seem right, there was no Supreme Court judgement on 377 and the cafes I went to collaborate on as an LGBT entrepreneur were not just uninterested, they were homophobic and nasty.”

In any case, she did not have the money. “So I went and worked at other places (as a bartender in Taj, Bangalore and The Park, Goa), saved money and then invested in this place,” she says, smiling, full of beans, despite a long-standing leg accident (she’s a badminton player) that has just being showing up again and she can’t walk at the moment. With just Rs 2 lakh, she started one of the twin cities most happening spaces for people who care.

That she chose Sainikpuri and Secunderabad for a café is nothing short of suicide to most entrepreneurs, queer or otherwise, but she’s made it work. “See, ordinary people come here. The food is cheap. Locals come, they feel safe here. You can hold your partner’s hand here as a queer person. Local folk come and work here all day on work-from-home days,” she says, beaming with happiness. It is a rented space and she’s made it the cosiest space for minorities of all kinds.

She’s just about cutting even but her focus is not on profits at the moment. “I am focusing on building the space,” she says. To her, access is important. “Look, I come from a middle class family. I believe in affordable spaces. I can’t keep my food cheap or pay low rent in Jubilee or Banjara Hills.”

The house has enough space for performances, events, book readings, poetry readings, all of which she has. She’s off to Pune in a few months for a few months to open another café. That she opened People’s Choice with a straight friend and ally — Mohammad Adam — shows her attitude to the world and the attitude in the cafe: that of inclusivity, warmth and human bonding.