The Hanky Code

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As queer people, we read gayness onto everything. I was recently having dinner with a friend, who said their date a couple nights before stated with complete conviction that Amal Clooney was George’s beard. And look, I am here for that knowledge, and in my mind this is now a cold hard fact because I want to believe everyone is queer. We crave queerness: we crave seeing it, hearing about it, knowing other people are it. While many of us can now openly exclaim that seemingly happily heterosexual celebrities are actually flamers due to their fashion, their hair, their accessories, and choice of pet, historically we had to be a little more subversive about our queer readings of people and bodies.

Welcome the coded handkerchief. Allegedly stemming from a post-gold rush USA, the coloured hanky worn on cowboys and miners signified whether they would lead or follow when dancing due to a lack of women… or because they were just wanting a gay ho-down. Who could be sure? Moving forward the coded-handkerchief was widely worn in the back pocket of men in 1960’s and ‘70’s San Francisco to subtly let each other know what they were into, and how they were into it. Sadly, this coding was a necessity that stemmed from the oppression and violence towards gay men and queer culture at the time. Without being able to openly use verbal communication as a come-on, men were forced to use techniques of flagging to signify their desire.


Hal Fischer, Gay Semiotics, 1977

A basic handkerchief code by is laid out in Larry Townsend’s The Leatherman’s Handbook (1983), and with a name like that how could you not trust it? Generally speaking, hankys worn on the left signify a dominant partner or a top, and on the right a submissive or bottom.

Colour coding as follows:

Black = S&M, Dark Blue = Anal, Light Blue = Oral sex, Brown = Scat, Green – sex for money, Grey = Bondage, Orange = Anything Goes, Purple = Piercing, Red = Fisting, Yellow = Watersports.

Just a cute bum living it’s best life

As with all subculture and semiotics*, the way we code our bodies change with time, as symbols become more or less blatant dependent on our social and political climate. In many parts of the world (read privileged parts of the world), we have the luxury of wearing our sexuality and sexual practices quite literally on our sleeve (or nose, or arms, or bootie shorts, or assless chaps). We still ‘flag’, don’t get us wrong, but my queerly coded body involves a septum piercing, undercut, and a large tattoo that says ‘QUEER’ on my arm (subtlety is everything), as opposed to a colour coded handkerchief letting my queer babes know ‘I’m a switch with a penchant for dildo play’.

As we develop new and often more blatant ways of expressing our identities, our genders, and our sexual preferences, many (Western) cultures don’t need subversive tactics of hanky coding. The practice of flagging is still widely used in almost all LGBT and queer communities, even if it’s just through a pair of cheery rainbow socks, bright pink hair, or whatever queer trend is popping in your community at the time.

Understand though, this is not a universal law – not everyone in the world are safely able to wear their sexuality with the pride they may desire, and some choose not to be read or coded by their sexuality as a personal preference. As well, we now have the internet, and oh so many a debaucherous apps – Grindr, Tinder, Bumble (probably a hundred more I’ve been monogamous for a while…) –  where we can express our desires and sexual preferences through text and Emoji’s, all the while protected by the anonymity of the internet. Granted, this also opens people up to racist, transphobic, and bi/queer-phobic symbolism, and this has been an issue in the Queer community for as long as we could openly choose our sexual partners. More on that in posts to come.

We here at Max believe in the importance of remembrance, and the reverie of systems long gone, so here are our favourite lesser known Hanky Codes.

  • Chamois Motorcycle Sex; either on a motorcycle, or using one as a prop
  • Charcoal – Latex, PVC, or Rubber fetish
  • Lime – Food fetish, also known as Sitophilia, involving the eating of food off of another’s body
  • Mid-Blue – Uniform fetish
  • Grey Flannel –  Suit and Tie fetish
  • Camouflage – Rugged outdoorsman; love for outdoor sexing
  • Rust – Pony Play

And my favourite…

  • Sandalwood – Carpenter sex; particularly for sex in a carpenter’s shop or mechanics

We’ll take one in every colour, thank you.

*Semiotics is how meaning is created and communicated through signs, each consisting of a form – a signifier – and what it represents – the signified

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