Hanky Code: Folklore, Language, and Leather

This is the first in a series of posts looking at history and usage of terminology relevant to sexual and gender minorities.

I first encountered hanky code (or hankie code, or handkerchief code, or bandana code) at a gay sex shop, either in West Hollywood or San Francisco. Across from the porn and on the side of a display full of rubber fists was a rack of Western-style handkerchiefs of many colors. There were small wallet-sized booklets available which connected every color I saw there, and plenty that I didn’t, to some sexual activity. They described to me a navigation of top and bottom, of communicating not just a queerness but a desire for a specific interactions, many interactions then new to me. This was supposed to be a secret language of color and cloth available to me as I emerged into a rainbow world from a family that was rejecting me and the language I had for myself. It was also a language of kink, and I was learning at the time that not all people were kinky. Hanky code was existence, it was definition, it was possibility, and it could be folded up and stuck in one or the other of my back pockets, as I chose, to flag interest – “flagging” being a term often used for wearing a hanky, as in “flagging red”.

Overwhelmed by indecision – how do you choose your favorite way to get off, anyway? – I left with just the booklet. But since then in looking at sexual minority and kink history, hanky code seems to come up the most. Perhaps it serves as folklore.

San Francisco cowboys or miners during the California Gold Rush are often referenced as the origin of the code (In the Red offers one such example). With few if any women around, they used handkerchiefs to indicate whether they lead or followed when they danced. That link above is one of several I’ve seen suggesting that the ‘gender’ of the dancer was indicated by color of handkerchief; others (like Brothels, Bordellos and Bad Girls) mention tying the handkerchief around one’s arm, and tying cloth around one’s arm to communicate meaning (such as political party or mourning) has a pretty solid history. It’s also relevant to keep in mind the usage at that time of handkerchiefs in Latin American dance, and that cultural exchange moved up the California coast. I suspect what happened was that when these men went dancing, they took their dirt-stained handkerchief of whatever original color off their neck or head or out of their pocket and tied it around one arm to lead and one arm to follow. But this wasn’t about same-gender desire communicated secretly in a homoerasive world, since it wasn’t contained to gay men: everyone was doing it, regardless of who they were attracted to, so I think the relationship of this practice to hanky code is questionable. It’s one of many uses of handkerchiefs as symbols throughout history, and I think it became an element of the hanky code story because it’s a specific case where, in a space that would one day be a gay mecca, a group of men who lacked divided gender roles as a mechanism for navigating a socially controlled intimacy replaced them with a tool everyone had. It’s an exciting, almost anarchistic, and logical-sounding origin story of dancing cowboys.

The next historical origin that gets referenced a lot is a Village Voice article in the 1970s which joked that leathermen in New York City, who flagged themselves as tops and bottoms based on which pocket held their hanging keys, might instead use different colored hankies to indicate specific preference (an example of that reference here; the VV’s online archives only go back to the 90’s though, anyone able to verify?). This gets us closer, but there’s a fair amount of anecdotes of hanky code in some form or another going back into the 60s; Bob Guenther writes (PDF) about the first published code in 1969. The earliest publishing of the hanky code that is commonly referenced is Larry Townsend’s 1983 The Leatherman’s Handbook II (it wasn’t even mentioned in the 1973 first edition). Somewhere in this 60s to 80s range, it’s commonly agreed, is when hanky code caught on. But what actually is it that caught on? And with whom?

The history of gay male leather in the US must include the years after World War II. Jack Fritscher gets into it in his intro to The Leatherman’s Handbook II describing kinky gay men who had been in the military, and had found a sort of family and structure that resonated with something deep inside them, a family and structure that involved men and muscles and power and uniforms and hierarchies and intense access to emotion and pain. And then they came home to a world with nothing like that. They found the counterculture of biker gangs, which provided a space of aggressive, rebellious masculinity that was at odds with popular images of gay men as weak, swishy, effeminate, and so forth. They wore leather to indicate that they were bikers and colors on the backs of their jackets to indicate which gang they were with (and hankies fit so well with that fashion). We also have to look at pre-WWII Weimar Berlin, which was in many ways a sexual revolution for sexual minorities (and a kinky one at that); it’s probable that the styles of the time had a heavy influence on Hugo Boss, who got his start during the Weimar Republic and designed and supplied uniforms for Nazi Germany. Touko Laaksonen’s (Tom of Finland) homoerotic drawings started being published in 1957, and Nazi uniforms were a heavy inspiration, although over time he developed his own styles of uniforms bearing penises rather than swastikas; his drawings became some of the first iconic images of homoeroticism in leather. These and other military uniforms had significant influence on gay leather men’s styles. Also out of the Netherlands, so very possibly an additional inspiration to Laaksonen, the first leather bar in Europe opened just two years before, around the same time as the first leather bar in the US (see this article from oral history on gay/leather bars, which includes a number of Tom of Finland drawn and inspired posters). In 1964 Life magazine published an article on “Homosexuality in America” that gave significant focus to leather (see above link on leather bars). Robert Mapplethorpe emerged at the end of the 60s with a new set of iconic images of men in leather as well as out of it. In the early 70s Larry Townsend put out his first version of Leather Handbook. By the mid-70s there were magazines like Drummer and numerous leather bars. Leather looks had made their way into vanilla gay fashion (see Gayle Rubin), including the stylish wearing of keys hanging from belt loops. AIDS was not yet an issue. Anti-gay discrimination was a real issue, but that was somewhat more likely to target gender-transgressive people (such as the Compton’s Cafeteria Riots and Stonewall). A tough, sexy, fashionable leather men’s bar was the place to be if you were a masculine cisgender gay man.

So this is the world we had at the time the Village Voice made a joke that some say inspired hanky code in the 70s. As a cheap accessory that worked well with a military or biker style and seamlessly crossed into more casual popular urban fashions, perhaps as a conceptual variation on the pocket square which already serves as a space of self-expression in men’s clothes, it was easy to adopt. And again there’s a history of handkerchiefs being imbued with meaning, as well as leather: another history of rags and leathers comes out of the Oakland YMCA in the early 1900s, as a positive reward system of setting goals and striving for personal growth. And the polio scare in the mid-1950s lent towards a major decline in the usage of hankies for noses, which might have offered room for them to be more present as fashion items (and perhaps biker subculture’s rebellious behavior included continuing to use hankies for sneezes, and the cloths worked their way toward fashion items from there).

But as a complicated code with documented regional variations, it doesn’t seem to have been significantly used for the purpose it appears to have been designed for. Anecdotes I have found about its usage in action demonstrate hankies functioning as conversation pieces and icebreakers, often when a person unwittingly wore one without knowing about the code in the first place (an example). Even the documentations of regional variations likely functioned more as community activities and symbols than methods of interpersonal communication about specific activities; Townsend notes about the hanky code that most of it was just some guys sitting around trying to assign a color to everything, and the short version he published in the second Handbook was simply an acknowledgement of something that had by then become fairly well-known.

This might address some of the most common questions I’ve heard about hanky code. For one, how do you remember them all? Most people don’t, and the few who do can often also recite film scripts, the periodic table, and the like. Actively using the hanky code usually meant learning colors for things you like, looking for those colors, and then asking someone flagging them if they’re intending to flag that activity (and hoping, in a dark bar, that you’ve identified the color in the first place). Do you wear a color for everything you’re into all at once, and in both pockets if you’re a switch? Sure, if you want to. Some people will flag what they’re looking for tonight, or just mix it up at random, or double-flag, although I’ve also heard of doubling up hankies starting as a way of trying to differentiate hanky code from fashion, but of course that cycled right back into fashion pretty quickly. And do you just approach anyone anywhere who you think is flagging? Anecdotes I’ve heard mostly point to gay men’s clubs and leather events and other such areas where at least everyone could safely assume a gender interest of everyone else there, and only how to do it and who’s on top was in question, but I’m aware of it being used outside those spaces too – that’s chancier, of course.

So the common thread I’ve seen in its historical usage has been less about flagging specific personal desires and more about finding a space where such activities exist enough to have their own flag. The secretiveness idea of hankies seems more tied in with the idea that this was a form of communication that explicitly existed in gay leathermen’s spaces. Fitscher’s essay points out the significant capitalist influence in the origins of modern leather culture; the act of joining a community by purchasing a piece of cloth to identify your behavior fits very neatly into capitalist scripts, minimizing the threshold of adoption for people less drawn to counterculture, while the style fits well in counterculture image. The costs of dressing for the leather community are very high, and the costs of having no community at all are very high, so being able to purchase a hanky could be meaningful. Many people may have found it less for flagging specific desired activities and more for flagging community participation and awareness – “being one of us”. When participation in a community means dressing significantly alike – a common complaint about leather spaces – a visual expression of personality is appealing, and it’s personality you get to stick on your masculine ass that’s just itching to be squeezed. And many people may have found it a style not personally useful to wear but a wonderful indicator that they found the right bar.

I think the idea of hanky code being a code is also important in its being embraced. To access a code, a secret language shared by you and people like you, who have been alienated like you, who have perhaps lost family the same way as you, is a dream. Of course there is no one community of gay people, or leather people, or anything. There’s a bunch of complicated people with conflicting desires and a chaos of approaches on how to get there. We have been hurt through systemic marginalization on the basis of who they love and how they find pleasure and we have survived in ways that hurt each other. And scariest of all, it turns out most of us don’t actually have sex the same way at all. In the leather scenes there were many efforts to organize the resultant behavior, which tended to come through as some sort of leather code of conduct that tried to tie common ideas of good behavior to leather identity as well as encourage exclusive behavior to keep out new people that might break any calm that could be found. The idea of hanky code suggested an order to that chaos with a coexistence of many desires, and it did so through a fashion statement that anyone in the community(ies) could write themself in to, with a low baseline of cost, knowledge or time. Secrets and codes make for exciting rumors, and exciting rumors become truth (that link is the best in this entire post).

What about modern usage? It’s definitely spread outside of cisgender gay men’s spaces, to the point of variations including commentary on that (see also that site’s extensive and elaborate hanky code). And here’s some awesome ideas on Flagging for Femmes. The capitalism related to its popular adoption and still expressed in racks of hankies sold at sex shops for your self-commodification hasn’t negated hanky code’s presence and magic in radical spaces and visions, so it’s in the stunning Collective Tarot. It remains a tool for flirtation and perhaps an increasingly nerdy one due to the code’s space in history and folklore.

It’s also become specifically popular among straight kinky people, not all of whom have a particular friendliness toward gay people much less a knowledge of the hanky code’s origins in gay leather (or leather’s origins among gay men). Many straight kinky people express a desire for kinkiness and leather to not gain social acceptance or exposure (some sexual minorities do too but this seems orders of magnitude more prevalent among straight people). Some don’t want to risk things like social standing, employment, or access to their children; some find the appeal in their kinks directly tied to the social transgression which might be lost if the kink were to be socially acceptable; some see kink as explicitly a private thing that has no place in public discussion, including in discussions of the law. These straight kinky people may be more drawn to hanky code as something which might allow them to keep their secrets.

Finally, a mention of our blog’s name. I mentioned the prevalence of hanky code when researching history of sexual minorities. It’s a very significant part of our history, and it’s also a very small part that came out of a community that often excluded women, feminine men, and transgender people of any gender. Caroline and I wanted to examine the past and present of all of us who are sexual and gender minorities, both what ties us together and what makes each of us distinct: we wanted to go beyond hanky code. So, here we are; we hope you enjoy it.

Edit 1/19/2014: Already, more information!
* Rustin Wright pointed out that “bandana code” may be the regional term specific to Manhattan, at least (he also reminded me of the “hankie” spelling variation). Any other regional insights?
* Rustin also brought up possible code history of handkerchiefs in the NYC square dance community as well as among Quakers.
* And Rustin also brought up the movie “Cruising” which references the code. In writing this post I erred on the side of not including it since I haven’t seen it and didn’t know much, but I’m seeing more and more people referencing that movie as their first exposure to hanky code so I think it’s worth note. Here’s the clip of the movie in which Pacino’s character learns about it. I notice that Pacino’s character panics as soon as yellow hankies are mentioned, which reflects my own experience of rarely discussing the brown ones.
* Hanne Blank describes her own practice:

A few of my lovers over the years have taken to flagging with one of the very femme lacy vintage handkerchiefs I have given them for the purpose of wiping my lipstick from their lips. Each of them has done it of hir own accord, and each time I have been deeply flattered. Sometimes the flag has been worn left, sometimes the flag has been worn right. This is as it should be. Flagging “Hanne Blank’s lover” is its own very specific, and very delicious, thing.

* Sheila Jeffreys in her 1993 Lesbian Heresey (PDF link) has a chapter dedicated to criticism of lesbian adoption of (usually gay) male culture and practices, in which she talks about a 1992 conference on safe sex for lesbians in which an SM workshop included an introduction of the hanky code. She’s particularly known for her criticism of both sadomasochism and trans women as reproducing patriarchy, and absolutely doesn’t speak for anyone involved with this blog, but she is still a significant lesbian scholar and historian so it is fair to assume that at least at one time, a fair number of lesbians probably had a similar impression of the code:

After the movie there was a demonstration of sadomasochism. This seems to be de rigeur at these events. I naively assumed that the demonstration would be relevant to HIV transmission but this was not so. It was just a promotion for S/M and seemed fairly unsafe in its message. The top in leather chaps who performed the demonstraion showed us the contents of her suitcase. She showed us leather caps, such as identify tops and bottoms. She showed us different handkerchiefs, including her own which was in camouflage print and signified military interest. Brown was for shit and yellow for urine. One of the VAC presenters asked, very sensibly, if there was a handkerchief which indicated an interest in safe sex. The top told us there was and that was check or white but it was very difficult to get hold of these.

* However, in a reread of Kate Bornstein’s Gender Outlaw I was reminded of its reference to the Samois Collective’s 1981 Coming to Power which published a women-centric version of the Hanky Code two years before the Leather Handbook II. (I read this approximately two hours after hitting ‘post’. D’oh!)
* Finally, a link I forgot to include the first time around is Jack Rinella’s essay “The Myth of the Old Guard”, which is quite on topic.

More personal stories are welcome and invited!

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5 Responses to Hanky Code: Folklore, Language, and Leather

  1. Pingback: Giovanni’s Room | Beyond Hanky Code

  2. Hi, I enjoyed your research, content, well-reasoned conclusions, and style in this article. Thanks for including some of my writing. I first covered the hanky code in Drummer 31, September 1979, and have written about it several more times which can be sampled by typing “hanky code” into the SEARCH feature at my website listed below. Meanwhile, may I offer you this link about the evolution of gay linguistics which mirrors the evolution of gay styles such as flagging. Enjoy. http://www.jackfritscher.com/PDF/Academic/Queer%20Words.pdf

    • Jack, thanks for the kind comment. Your website is a terrific resource and I really enjoyed the academic paper you linked. I was particularly struck by your comment that coming out entails learning “a new language of sex and identity.” I can’t imagine how long it must have taken to become proficient pre-Internet.

      (I’m not the OP; I’m the other blogger on this site)

    • catchingwine says:

      Jack, my apologies for my terribly delayed response! Thank you for sharing the article – it’s exactly on point, and a wonderful history.

      • Jack Fritscher says:

        Hi, Charlie Mc! Thanks for being in touch, and thanks especially for your kind words. I like your ongoing work. If ever I can be of support, please be in touch. Cheers, Jack

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