Shirtless man with cowboy hat and bandana on neck looking to the side.

The gay hanky code is a color-coded system of handkerchiefs or bandanas popularized by gay men in the ’70s and ’80s to signal sexual interests or fetishes in cruising spaces.  

Horny strangers could communicate desire as quickly as it took to lock eyes and glance at each other’s back pockets. And because of its timeless and straightforward nature, the queer and fetish communities still embrace the practice.

While anyone can list their sexual preferences on dating apps, there’s something alluring about looking for mates the old fashion way – in real life. 

Here’s all you need to know to participate in the colorful fun. 

History of the hanky code

Man laying down with shirt unbuttoned and and another man behind him kissing his neck.

Also known as “flagging,” the hanky code originated in the 1970s when sodomy laws made it illegal in many states to have queer sex.

That’s when and why sex between queer men often took place on the outskirts of society; a public park, abandoned building, or even a construction site could turn into a gay spin of A Night at the Roxbury

Some people still find it annoying when others ask what they’re sexually into, so imagine if it could get you arrested. Naturally, in the absence of the internet, the gays needed a safe and discreet way to cruise in public. Thus, the gay community adopted the hanky code.

Another theory about the origin is that gold rush settlers who used a bandana flagging system in dance inspired San Franciscan gays. There was a shortage of females, so men indicated their role as lead or follow with hankies. 

‘Gay Semiotics’ brings hanky code mainstream

In 1977, San Francisco photographer Hal Fischer produced his photo-text project ‘Gay Semiotics’, which helped bring the hanky code mainstream. The color code evolved to bracelets and other adaptations, like the right ear being the “gay” ear.

How to use hanky code

Two muscular torsos in dark room.

Knowing your history is fun and all, but the real treat is knowing what color bandanas to buy and how to use them.

The gay hankie movement was an act of queer resistance and liberation, but the system remains in use by queers and kinksters because it’s a good time.

The basic steps include:

  1. Choose your desire: Fold your respective color bandana(s) visibly in your back pocket.
  2. Indicate your role: Left pocket signifies the dominant role, right pocket signifies the submissive role. (Yes, in other words, bottom or top, but not everyone uses hanky code for topping or bottoming.) 

Different hanky colors and their meanings

Man sticking hands in back pockets with brown hankie folded inside right pocket.
  • Red: fisting
  • Orange: anything goes
  • Yellow: water sports (pee)
  • Green: escort work
  • Light blue: oral sex 
  • Dark blue: anal sex 
  • Purple: piercing
  • Grey: bondage
  • Black: S&M
  • Brown: scat play (poop)

What if I see someone wearing a hanky I don’t understand?

Man smiling wearing glasses with a black dog wearing red bandana resting on his shoulder.

Yes, we know: sex between strangers can be the best thing ever. But unless the sexual encounter has been mutually agreed upon in some way, you should proceed with care.

  • Don’t make assumptions: A person wearing a hankie might not mean anything. Ask first, and if they look confused, use it as an icebreaker and be glad you weren’t more forward.  
  • Don’t assume even if you’re at gay bars: If you’re at an establishment or party where people are clearly using gay hanky system. Enjoy! But, because consent is key and some colors are less commonly used than others, it never hurts to communicate and be clear.

How the hanky code is used today 

Two men standing across from each other in subway station.

Today, the hanky code is often seen in entertainment or gay pop culture. The queer community has access to apps that make it easier to communicate roles and expectations upfront, as well.

However, we’d be remiss not to recognize and celebrate the legacy of how gay men find each other for sex. The hanky culture was a triumph for sex liberation that offered vanilla and kink on the same table, without judgment.

If you’re into the idea of using the gay hanky code system in your sex life, we promise you’ll always find a community for pleasure if you ask the right person. 

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