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History of the Hanky Code and Its Significance in LGBTQ+ History

hanky code in back pocket

The hanky code, also known as the handkerchief code, bandana code, or flagging, is a fascinating system of communication that emerged within the queer community, particularly among gay men, during the 1970s and 1980s. This system uses colour-coded handkerchiefs or bandanas discreetly placed in the back pocket to signify specific sexual preferences.

The hanky code holds a significant place in queer history, as it allowed individuals to express their hidden desires openly and fostered a sense of community and solidarity within the LGBTQ+ community. This article will delve into the origins of the hanky code, its evolution, the meanings behind various colours, and its lasting impact on queer culture.

Origins and Historical Context

To truly understand the hanky code, we must explore its origins and the historical context in which it developed. The 1970s and 1980s were pivotal times for the LGBTQ+ community, marked by a burgeoning gay liberation movement and increasing visibility of queer culture.

However, social attitudes towards same-sex relationships remained largely discriminatory and hostile. In this era of oppression, queer individuals sought ways to discreetly connect and express their desires without fear of persecution.

Enter the hanky code—Developed primarily within the LGBTQ+ leather and BDSM communities during the 1970s and 1980s, the hanky code served as a sensitive means for queer men to communicate their sexual preferences, desires and identities through the language of coloured handkerchiefs.

While the exact origins of the hanky code are debated, we know that the leather and BDSM subcultures provided safe havens for queer men to explore their sexualities openly and paved the way for the hanky code’s emergence. In these communities, individuals engaged in various kinks, fetishes, and role-play activities.

As these subcultures grew and gained visibility, the need arose for a way to communicate specific interests without drawing unwanted attention or risking public exposure. This necessity led to the adoption of a discreet and easily understandable system—the hanky code.

Participants wore colour-coded handkerchiefs or bandanas in their back pockets or tied to their belt loops, each colour signifying a particular interest or fetish. Verbalising specific kinks or preferences openly in public settings could be dangerous due to the prevailing prejudice and risk of harassment or violence. This non-verbal language allowed individuals to signal their desires to potential partners without explicitly stating them aloud.

The hanky code’s use quickly spread beyond the leather and BDSM communities to encompass a wider range of LGBTQ+ individuals. As word of the system spread through informal networks and underground publications, more queer individuals adopted it to secretly express their desires and identities.

Embracing a Subtle and Versatile Language

The versatility of the hanky code was a key factor in its expansion. Colours and patterns represented diverse sexual interests, kinks, and identities, catering to a wide spectrum of desires within the LGBTQ+ community. This adaptability allowed the hanky code to become more inclusive and welcoming, accommodating individuals with varied sexual orientations and preferences.

The adoption of the hanky code created a shared language that transcended boundaries and facilitated connections between like-minded partners.

Breakdown of the Different Colours and Their Meanings in the Hanky Code

The hanky code utilises a variety of colours, each carrying a specific meaning, to communicate sexual preferences, kinks, and interests within the LGBTQ+ community. Below is a breakdown of some common colours and their respective meanings:

  • Black: Black signifies an interest in BDSM, dominance, or leather fetish. Participants wearing a black hanky indicate their involvement in kink practices and power dynamics.
  • Blue: The colour blue is associated with anal sex. Dark blue indicates a preference for being a top (performing the penetrative role), while light blue signifies a preference for being a bottom (receiving the penetration).
  • Red: Red represents an interest in fisting or fisting activity. Those wearing a red hanky are signalling their desire for this intense form of sexual exploration.
  • Yellow: Yellow indicates a preference for watersports, also known as urine play. Participants wearing a yellow hanky express their interest in incorporating urine into their sexual activities.
  • Green: Green is associated with daddy/son or age-play dynamics. Those wearing a green hanky are expressing an interest in role-playing scenarios that involve an age difference.
  • Grey: Grey signifies an interest in bondage or restraint. Participants wearing a grey hanky indicate their desire to explore BDSM practices involving restraint and control.
  • White: White represents a preference for safe sex practices or celibacy. Individuals wearing a white hanky are signalling their commitment to engaging in sexual activities with safety in mind.
  • Orange: Orange indicates a preference for anything outdoors or public. Participants wearing an orange hanky express their interest in public sexual encounters or outdoor activities.
hanky code colours

It’s important to note that the meanings of hanky code colours can vary slightly within different LGBTQ+ subcultures or regions. Additionally, the hanky code has evolved over time, and some colours have been added or adapted to reflect a broader range of sexual preferences and identities.

Participants may choose to wear multiple handkerchiefs of different colours to signify diverse interests or to specify a more complex set of desires. Additionally, the code has expanded beyond sexual preferences to include signalling other aspects of identity, such as relationship status or kinks.

Expanding Beyond Sexual Desires: Signalling Relationship Status, Identities, and More

The hanky code evolved to encompass a broader range of expressions within LGBTQ+ communities. This expansion allowed individuals to signal relationship statuses, identities, and other aspects of queer life, making it a versatile and adaptable form of communication.

Relationship Status:
The handkerchief code began to include signals for relationship statuses. For instance, wearing a hanky on the left indicated that the individual was in a committed relationship while wearing it on the right indicated being single or open to casual encounters. This allowed individuals to express their availability or commitment without explicitly discussing their relationship status.

BDSM Roles:
The hanky code encompasses signalling one’s preferred role within BDSM dynamics. For example, wearing a black hanky on the left meant someone identified as a dominant (Top), while wearing it on the right indicated a submissive (Bottom) role.

Polyamory and Open Relationships:
As non-monogamous relationships gained acceptance within LGBTQ+ communities, the hanky code adapted to include signals for those interested in polyamory or open relationships. Participants may wear specific coloured handkerchiefs to express their openness to multiple partnerships or relationships.

Specific Kinks and Fetishes:
The hanky code expanded to include more nuanced and specific kinks and fetishes. Participants could choose from various colours and patterns to represent their unique interests, fostering a greater sense of community and inclusivity.

One of the hanky code’s most significant strengths is its versatility and adaptability within different LGBTQ+ subcultures. Various LGBTQ+ subcultures adopted and personalised the code to suit their own interests and identities.

The Social Impact of the Hanky Code During Its Heyday in LGBTQ+ Communities

During its heyday in the 1970s and 1980s, the hanky code profoundly impacted LGBTQ+ communities. It served as a silent language of desire, fostering a sense of community and solidarity among queer individuals who sought a safe space to explore their sexuality. The hanky code played a pivotal role in breaking down barriers, connecting like-minded partners, and creating a supportive network during a time of widespread discrimination and hostility.

In an era when LGBTQ+ individuals faced social stigma, legal persecution, and even violence for expressing their sexual desires openly, the hanky code provided a way to communicate discreetly and safely.

Individuals who participated in the code knew they were part of a shared experience and a secret world of understanding. This sense of belonging was especially crucial for those who might have felt isolated or marginalised due to their sexual interests or identities. Communicating this way made participants more likely to engage in consensual and respectful interactions. This emphasis on consent and communication set a precedent for healthier sexual relationships within the community.

The handkerchief code was crucial in building a sense of community and camaraderie among LGBTQ+ individuals. It provided a common ground for people with diverse backgrounds and interests to come together and discuss their desires openly. As a result, LGBTQ+ spaces and gatherings, such as bars, clubs, and private parties, became hubs of interaction and acceptance for those who embraced the hanky code.

By openly embracing various sexual appetites and identities, participants redefined what it meant to be sexual beings within the LGBTQ+ community. This empowerment encouraged individuals to embrace their authentic selves and contributed to the broader LGBTQ+ liberation movement.

Whatsmore, the code acted as a matchmaking tool, facilitating connections between individuals with compatible desires. It provided a practical and efficient way for queer men to find potential partners with similar interests and preferences. This led to the development of both casual encounters and meaningful relationships.

Overall, the hanky code’s social impact during its heyday was marked by its ability to break down communication barriers, create a sense of belonging, and foster a strong sense of community and solidarity within LGBTQ+ circles. While the hanky code’s usage has diminished over time, its legacy is a testament to the resilience and creativity of LGBTQ+ communities in navigating their desires during challenging times.

Diminishing Use of the Hanky Code: Factors and Influences

The use of the hanky code has decreased over time due to several factors and changes in LGBTQ+ culture and society.

As LGBTQ+ rights and visibility have improved, many queer individuals no longer feel the need to use a discreet communication system like the hanky code. Open discussions about sexual desires and identities have become more socially acceptable, reducing the need for coded communication.

The advent of the internet and dating apps has also revolutionised how LGBTQ+ individuals connect with potential partners. Online platforms provide a direct and convenient way to communicate interests and preferences, making the hanky code less necessary as a matchmaking tool.

We can also see how LGBTQ+ social spaces and gatherings have evolved. While bars and clubs were once central hubs for hanky code usage, the LGBTQ+ community now has more diverse spaces, events, and activities where individuals can openly express themselves.

Another reason for the decrease in usage is the LGBTQ+ community has developed a more extensive and inclusive vocabulary to discuss diverse sexualities, identities, and relationship dynamics. As language has evolved, more specific terms and labels have emerged, making the hanky code less relevant for expressing nuanced desires.

Perception and Understanding of the Hanky Code in Modern Times

In modern times, the hanky code is perceived and understood differently compared to its heyday in the 1970s and 1980s. While its usage has diminished, the hanky code continues to hold cultural significance and remains a subject of interest within the LGBTQ+ community.

For many younger LGBTQ+ individuals, the hanky code may be viewed as a historical curiosity or a relic of a bygone era. It represents a unique aspect of queer history and serves as a reminder of the challenges faced by previous generations. The hanky code is recognised as a symbol of LGBTQ+ resilience and creativity during a time of social discrimination. Its use reflects the community’s ingenuity in navigating its desires and identities under oppressive circumstances.

Among older LGBTQ+ individuals who experienced the code’s heyday, it may evoke feelings of nostalgia. The code represents a time of shared experiences, community building, and the pursuit of self-expression.

The hanky code has inspired artists, writers, and creators within the LGBTQ+ community, appearing in various works of art, literature, and media. It contributes to a rich tapestry of queer expression and representation, and its legacy endures through these creative expressions.

Exploring Queer History Through the Lens of the Hanky Code

The hanky code offers a fascinating entry point into the rich tapestry of LGBTQ+ history and culture. Delve deeper into this captivating subject to better understand the struggles, triumphs, and creative expressions of queer individuals through the ages. Here are some reputable sources and additional reading materials to guide your exploration:

  • “Flagging: The World of Signal Code” (Documentary): This insightful documentary provides an in-depth look at the hanky code’s origins and its impact on LGBTQ+ communities. It features interviews with individuals who experienced the heyday of the hanky code, offering unique perspectives and personal anecdotes.
  • “The Hanky Code: The Signaling System of the Gay Handkerchief” (Book): Written by gay historian Larry Townsend, this comprehensive book delves into the history of the hanky code, its development within different LGBTQ+ subcultures, and its cultural significance. Townsend’s meticulous research and narrative provide valuable insights into the complexities of queer identity and desire during the hanky code era.
  • “Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940” (Book): Authored by George Chauncey, this seminal work explores the history of LGBTQ+ life in New York City during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. While not directly focused on the hanky code, this book provides important context for understanding the evolution of queer communities and the various forms of communication used to express desire and identity.
  • “The Deviant’s War: The Homosexual vs the United States of America” (Book): Randy Shilts’ narrative examines the fight for LGBTQ+ rights in the United States, from the early 20th century to the emergence of the hanky code in the 1970s. This book provides a broader historical perspective on the social and political forces that shaped LGBTQ+ culture and the innovative ways the community asserted its identity.

The Enduring Legacy of the Gay Handkerchief Code

The hanky code was pivotal in fostering community and understanding within the LGBTQ+ world. It allowed individuals to connect with like-minded individuals, explore their desires consensually, and feel part of a larger, supportive network.

While the hanky code has become more of a historical curiosity than a prevalent communication tool in today’s queer culture, it remains an intriguing part of queer history, representing a time when expressions of desire and identity had to be veiled due to societal prejudices. It was a silent language, allowing individuals to explore and embrace their authentic selves.

Nikki Halliwell (She/Her)

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