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
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
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:
- Choose your desire: Fold your respective color bandana(s) visibly in your back pocket.
- 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
- 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?
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
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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interested parties can find a much more extensive list online.
when was the last time anyone looked at miss Lindesys neckties ? jus saiyan.
The hanky code was never that simple. It varied from place to place, so you had to know the local code to express yourself properly.
I was watching the American Idol finale Sunday night and country boy Colin Strough was wearing a grey hankie hanging out his left back pocket. I’m laughing and just had to check it out to see what it meant. Guess he’s into dominate bondage. LOL
Queerty: Do your homework. There a LOT more colors than the ones highlighted above . A LOT more..
Can we stop trying to pretend the hanky code is or was ever a serious method of signalling for anyone other than maybe a core group of hardcore cruising addicts in San Francisco in the wildest of the pre-AIDS era? And if you could find 5% of gay guys back then who understood and employed the code I’d be hugely surprised. My recollection of the 70s / early 80s (peak code years) was that the vast majority of guy guys didn’t know the code even existed. The serious scene queens who were aware of it typically could name two or three of the colours – and frequently they got it wrong. Most could never remember which side was dominant or passive. And quite a few wore hankies purely as a scene fashion accessory, with no thought as to what it was supposed to signify. So even if you were a code aficionado attempting to connect with another, the chances are you’d end up at cross purposes with someone who just thought a red hanky went with their outfit. Plus, most serious cruising spots were too dark for any kind of colour code be be useful anyway!
I beg to differ, but not to argue. I believe that back in the “good ole days” since there were no “apps” (the closest was AOL channel 33) we either met at the clubs, the piers, alleyways, or the sex stores with videos (peeps) and back room mazes. Who could see anything, let alone hanky flags. But they were prevalent and many knew the colors.
In 1978, when I first ventured into the bars in Greenwich Village (New York City), and when rest stops on 95 were very busy places — the basic Hanky was definitely being used. I never cared beyond the basic colors, but I *always* had light blue hanky visible in my left pocket, and got appropriate responses. I was a 20 year old boy next door type, and for me it worked pretty well. We’re not talking tons every time I went out, but, the “code” was real, and guys knew it.
Believe it or not, I still have the same light blue hanky in my night table drawer, 45 years after I bought it.
Some bars in NYC passed out cards that had a list of colors and what they meant. These were also available in gay bookstores for a time. That light blue in NY was called “robin’s egg blue”