Legacy of the Hanky Code and Underground Sex

August 12, 2020

Legacy of the Hanky Code and Underground Sex

What is flagging? What is the hanky code? What’s the history and the context behind queer symbols? What does it mean if someone’s wearing a black handkerchief in his back pocket?* 

I run a stationery brand specifically for queer people, called Our Back Pockets.  I wrote a blog post about why I started the business, and how the name references the practice of flagging. 

But today, I want to put that all in context and talk about the history behind flagging itself. 

(*Possibly that he’s looking to inflict some seriously sexy pain as an S&M top. Or, maybe it means nothing! Use context clues and also ask people with words, k thanks.)

What is the hanky code?

The hanky code - also known as flagging - is a color coded system used to communicate with other people of similar sexualities and kinks (originally gay men), for the purposes of finding casual sex partners. 

In this system, wearing a handkerchief in your back pocket let other men know that you were interested in hooking up.  You’re a bottom? Hanky in the right pocket.  Feeling toppy? The left. The color of hanky corresponds to what, exactly, you’re looking to do during said hookup.

Flagging and the hanky code are inextricably linked with the history of cruising, and the need to signal to strangers of a similar ilk that you are down for fucking while avoiding crackdown from homophobic authorities. 

While the practice originated with and is primarily associated with gay men, it has been adopted by a variety of adjacent communities and has influenced many aspects of queer culture.

Where flagging and the hanky code all began

Although the history likely goes back further, the most well known version of the handkerchief code became popular among gay men in the mid 1970s. Specifically, it was part of the leather and BDSM scene. BDSM stands for bondage, dominance, sadism, and masochism, and as a community often goes hand in hand with other types of fetishes and kinks. Leather subculture is a subset of all of this, primarily associated with gay men (although let us not forget the lesbians - leather dykes are for sure a thing). 

Tom of Finland Biker

The scene is made up of people into, well, leather - specifically the kind of leather fashion that is associated with biker culture. Think Tom of Finland, with his popular drawings of men that were undeniably sexy, and undeniably built (see right). Think hyper-masculine, leather jackets, harnesses and whips. It’s no surprise to me that one of the most elaborate and codified set of queer symbols arose from a subculture so tapped into a particular aesthetic and vibe.

As mentioned, a handkerchief was worn in the back pocket, and which side it was in corresponded to an intended role (top/bottom, giving/receiving, etc). But things get even juicier when you introduce color: the color of bandana signaled interest in a specific kink, and could get quite involved.  

Sometimes the color has to do with the fetish, but some don’t. I bet you can guess what a yellow hanky might stand for (it’s piss play), but you might have a hard time distinguishing between light pink, dark pink, mauve, and fuschia - let alone be able to guess their meanings.

And that’s where the codes come in.

Luckily you wouldn’t have to rely on word of mouth for your education, or even on your memory; there were small zine-like guides - or “decoder lists” - printed, so that you would never be lost on the more esoteric quirks of a scene. They were circulated among friends as well as at sex shops, queer novelty stores, or even along with the bandana purchase. That way, while out on the town, you could pull out a little booklet and surreptitiously remind yourself that the dark pink bandana peaking out of that hot guy’s back pocket means that he’s into tit torture and not, in fact, dildos (light pink), bellybutton worship (mauve), or spanking (fuschia). 

Boston Eagle Hanky Code from The History Project

These booklets are interesting, because they are on the one hand very serious and practical - you really would use flagging to hook up. It was about cruising and doing, not only an abstract identity. On the other hand, they have also always been playfully tongue in cheek!

One of the guides that circulated in Boston had “into pre-Minoan art” listed as an interest. During a virtual lecture Q+A put on by The History Project (an organization that documents and archives LGBTQ+ history of the Boston area), an audience member shared that he was friends with the man that had added the pre-Minoan art entry and confirmed that while it was definitely meant to be funny, it was a campy addition to a pre-existing core list that was more sincere. 

And let’s not forget that trying to figure out what exact shade of pink a hanky might be, while in a dark bar no less, was always bound to lead to snafus and hijinks! And who is better than queers at combining very real, serious information with over-the-top jokes?

Button Display and Flagging for Dildos

Variations and legacy of the hanky code

While there are some core similarities across hanky codes (red seems to always correspond with fisting), the nuances of hanky codes vary by location as well as by community or scene.  

When the lesbians got their hands on the tradition in the late 1970s, they repurposed some colors and added a bunch of new ones.  Notably, a white lacy hanky for what I gather was essentially kinky victorian role-play. Because of course! 

As it gained popularity, the hanky code expanded beyond BDSM subcultures and entered gay culture at large. 

Currently, the concept of “flagging” doesn’t even have to incorporate an actual handkerchief. The term flagging is sometimes used to simply mean “signifying an identity to those in the know” - e.g. wearing a pride pin of a certain color, or using a phrase only other queer people would understand the significance of.  By this definition, queers have been flagging for (at least!) as long as western homophobia has existed, and will likely continue to do so. 

The legacy of flagging also continues on in more explicitly sexual spaces.  For example, It’s pretty common practice among those who are throwing private orgies or sex parties to use a simple colored bracelet system to quickly identity who is there for what (i.e. “please approach me!” or “only here to watch”). 

Additionally, people still do use actual hanky flagging for facilitating hookups! Although I definitely recommend making sure that’s what’s going on, and not just that you’re hitting on a sexy stranger with a runny nose and a penchant for sustainability.  It could be both! Or neither! Still do have to use words, it turns out.

But where did the hanky code really come from?

It’s not clear where or when the hanky code began. As discussed, we know it became popular in the mid 70’s, but it seems to have roots much further back. Queer people have long used fashion accessories to call out to potential hookups or like minded people. Additionally, handkerchiefs themselves have always been both practical and symbolic objects - in and out of queer culture.

Some scholars think that using the handkerchief as a gay cruising signifier has it’s roots in the wild west. Specifically: the gold-rush era stag dance.  Because there were so few women on the frontier (and also probably a fair few gay men), in their down time men would dance with each other, and these all-male “stag dances” became all the rage. 

Stag Dance

Because the popular dances at the time were designed for a man (the lead) and a woman (the follower), and also often included switching partners, there had to be a way to signify who was the “man” and who was the “woman”. These frontiersmen came up with a system where those that were “heifer branded” - men  that were clean shaven, softer spoken, and knew the follower’s part (cowboy twinks, essentially) - would wear a bandana tied around their arm.

How, or even if, these homoerotic stag dances morphed into an elaborate code about gay BDSM kinks no one is quite sure of, but one thing is for sure: cowboys knew what was up, and many of them were probably what we would now classify as gay or bisexual.


Other systems of queer symbols and material culture

The hanky code is now a well-known aspect of queer history, and it is likely  the longest running code of its kind. But, it’s just one example of how queers throughout time have devised ways to find each other while safely flying under the mainstream radar.  

    • Lesbians in the 1940s sported nautical star tattoos on their inner wrist. 
    • Bold, colorful flowers and neck ties were used as symbols in the late 1800s into the early 1900s.
    • The triangle used to persecute homosexuals and other “asocial” troublemakers under the Nazi regime has been reclaimed as a symbol of queer identity and resistance.
    • The color lavender has been associated with queer people since at least the early 20th century. I’m not sure how that one came about (if you know please let me know!), but it’s an association that stuck around. I’m a millenial, and the first time I heard the term “gay” was in the context of a friend whispering to me that the purple teletubby with a triangle on his head meant he was gay! 
    • And who among us remember the panic in the 90s  about a single earring in a man’s right ear meaning he was gay? There are instances of men using single earrings to signify their interest in men as far back as the 1930s!
Needless to say, these symbols and cultures have long lives. The specifics  morph to fit the concerns of the day, and symbols can come in and out of favor, but the basic tenants remain. 

    Today we routinely rely on the little things to recognize our own: nail polish, a rainbow sticker, a haircut. And of course there are now a myriad of actual flags to signify pretty much any identity your heart can dream up. You can definitely flag with flags!

    The term flagging almost always refers to telling other people something about your identity or set of proclivities, but I think it’s also important to acknowledge what power these objects have in our lives, all on their own. The objects we surround ourselves with not only communicate with others, they also reinforce our own identities and values. 

    When I wear a queer storm pin, it reminds me to tap into that tenacious queer legacy. When a pansexual woman is in a relationship with a man, she’s assumed to be straight; if she also has a button with the pansexual colors on her favorite denim jacket, it provides important visibility but it also reminds her that she’s still queer, she’s still allowed to claim the scope of her desires, she’s still her. I can’t quite explain why this raven that’s shouting “GAY!” is so funny, but I know that gay after gay looks at it and says omg that’s so me. Queer material culture is fierce, it’s profound, and it is also joyfully, defiantly hilarious.

    When so much of the world is telling us to disappear, daily reminders of who we are and what we stand for become vital. You might not sport a hanky in your back pocket, but I am willing to bet that having some selection of small queer objects - manifestations of your desires, whatever they may be - will help you find community in unexpected places, anchor you to yourself in trying times, and maybe even get a little sexy.

    Why this history matters, and a final caveat

    I think it’s important to note that while to me, a young’un born in 1988, this feels like capital H History, this is very much a living memory for many people. Heartbreakingly, for not as many people as it should be. The cruising scene arguably started out of necessity (thanks homophobia), and also largely ended - or at least drastically changed - out of necessity.  The AIDS epidemic put a stop to cruising practices as they were, intensified the villianization of casual sex even amongst gay people, and robbed us of almost an entire generation. 

    All this is to say, this is not a history I take lightly. As a white cis(ish) woman, I am not someone that can reclaim this history in full, or truly take it on as my personal heritage. But if there is a queer community at large, this is an integral part of it - and it’s a history I deeply cherish. 

    My understanding of this history is second hand, and I highly recommend you check out the following resources for more information. 

    Sources & Further Reading

    Yes I'm Flagging - Queer Flagging 101: how to use the hanky code to signal the sex you want to have, by Archie Bongiovanni. Some of this info is also available in this Autostraddle article - but their illustrations in the zine version really take it to the next level!

    Out of the Archives - Hanky Panky: The History and Cultural Impact of the Hanky Code. Video recording of a talk by Raul Cornier, courtesy of the History Project. 

    The History Project. An organization devoted to documenting and archiving LGBTQ Boston (and other New England queer communities).

    Leather Archives & Museum. A museum and archive of materials related to the BDSM, kink, and fetish culture in Chicago. 

    ONE Archives. The oldest active LGBTQ organization in the United States, housed at USC and supported by the ONE Archives foundation.  

    GLBT Historical Society. Museum and archives located in San Francisco.



    Leave a comment

    Comments will be approved before showing up.

    Also in Blog

    The Origin of Our Back Pockets: Flagging and What it all Means
    The Origin of Our Back Pockets, and What It All Means

    July 22, 2020

    Today's story is about how I came up with the concept for Our Back Pockets (stationery to celebrate queer lives, heyyyy), as well as how I came up with the name Our Back Pockets.

    Continue Reading

    Ultimate Pride Guide: Queer Gear To Be Proud Of
    Ultimate Pride Guide: Queer Gear To Be Proud Of

    June 10, 2020

    For me, pride is about history, resistance, and strength in community, so this June I’m focused on supporting queer and marginalized communities in a variety of ways. If you're looking for pride gear, support queer businesses and shop small! Here are some of my faves.

    Continue Reading

    Cards, Care, and Memory
    Cards, Care, and Memory

    May 25, 2020

    Continue Reading