Believe it or not, there was a time that if you wanted to meet someone you had to actually go to a bar and start a conversation. Long before social app sites like Grindr, Adam4Adam, Scruff, the interaction between two gay men could be told by the hanky code or “flagging”. This was more prevalent during the 60’s and 70’s in the leather and BDSM to covertly signal their sexual interests; this was at a time when being gay could get you arrested, beaten up or fired (one can still be fired for being gay).
In the past 10 years this method has somewhat fallen by the wayside; however, in the leather community, you can still find men that will flag their back pockets. I never understood the hanky code until I became more involved in the leather community, and trust me I asked questions. I found it fascinating that what originated in the 60’s and 70’s was still around. However, you can understand why it still exists; for some, it might be the tradition of the past, and for some, it might be the mystery of using one. Either way, it is a fading practice.
This history of the handkerchiefs is very interesting and while it is believed to have originated in New York City, in fact, it is based on a San Francisco tradition that date backs to the mid-1800. They were commonly used in the American West by cowboys, miners and rail engineers. When gold was discovered in 1848 the style was carried on by prospectors that flocked to California. In 1846 San Francisco’s population was about 200, however, after the Mexican-American War, the population would explode to roughly 36,000. But the percentage of the population were mostly men; therefore, men were forced to dance together at social, with some men wearing a blue bandanna to show that they were assuming the male leading part in the dance while others wore red bandannas to show they were taking the female following role in the dance.
It is a tradition that has seen many changes, but the basic colors and meaning will never change. Especially within the leather community. J. Franklin
The modern use by gay men appears to date back to the early 1970’s when a journalist for the Village Voice joked that instead of using keys on the left or right pocket to indicate top or bottom in the bedroom – the prevailing custom of the time – instead, men should use colorful handkerchiefs that could be used to signal more specific interest.
Many variations still exist, but the following from Larry Townsend’s 1983 book The Leatherman’s Handbook II (2nd edition) seems to be the most commonly followed for the core colors. Here are a few examples:
Since then there are have been several variations with regards to the color of handkerchiefs for example; white = racists, gray = boring, baby blue = mother issues, pink = ingrained homophobia, and mustard = you drink too much. So it appears that like anything in life the hanky code is changing to meet the different terms of the gay community as it expands to include more within the community. Regardless of how you feel, the past meets the present and move forward to the future. It is these traditions that define our culture and allows us to express ourselves in different and unique ways.
GLBT Historical Society Archives & Museum. Archives & Research Center. San Francisco, CA. Online. 19 July, 2017.
The Village Voice. Archives. New York City, NY. Online. 19 July, 2017.
Images: istockphoto.com. Purchased for commercial use.