Tuesday, April 6, 2010

What is the “Hanky Code”?

So you’re out at the local gay bar and you see a hunky number you’d like to cruise.  Then he turns around to talk to someone or order a drink, and you get a view of his yummy ass.  But what’s that in his pocket?  A colored bandana?  Didn’t you hear that those mean something, that different colors mean different things?

Quick, get out your gay phone (iPhone) and Google it.  Choose this link.  Or this one.  Or this one.  Maybe check them all out.

What the --?  There are dozens of colors listed.  How are you supposed to remember all this stuff?  And man, if you read the various lists closely, they don’t even all agree!

First, Some History

The Hanky Code is a list of bandana colors and associated (gay) sex activities.

In the 1970s and before, the gay community (and especially the gay leather community) used many non-verbal signals to help indicate sexuality and sexual activity preferences.  At the time, engaging in homosexual activity at all could get you arrested; engaging in kink activities would just make that worse, so these non-verbal signals were invaluable.  Non-verbal signals includes styles of dress — Levis, leather jackets, etc. — and accessories such as keys attached to belt loops, rings attached to jacket epaulets, and bandanas stuck in back pockets.  All completely innocent items, unless you knew to look for them and how to decode them.

(This, of course, is the root of the concept of “gaydar”, detecting other gay men amongst the mass of presumed straight humanity.  All the little signals that we read — sometimes subconsciously — which add up to “He’s gay.”)

Even gay bars and bathhouses “signaled”, via their names.  Straights might not think anything of a given name, but names with sexual double entendres — Hole, Slot, Ambush, End-Up — were as good as a neon sign if you knew what you were looking for.

Top or Bottom

The first thing you need to know is which side means what.  That’s easy: left is top and right is bottom.  Anything on the left signifies top, and anything on the bottom signifies bottom.  Hanky, keys, wallet chain, arm band, knot on a bandana tied around the neck, etc.

Okay, it’s not quite that easy: when this sort of codification first came into being, the definitions were regional rather than global.  The West Coast (California, especially) used Left=Top, but either/both the East Coast and Europe (I’ve never had it confirmed which) used the reverse, Left=Bottom.  Needless to say, this could cause confusion for tourists and business travelers.  By the time the 1990s rolled around, though, California-style had largely won out, although people still knew that there was or had been a difference.

(In terms of heraldry — coats of arms and such — things on the left are dubbed “sinister” and things on the right are dubbed “dexter”.  “Sinister”=Top has always seemed like the right rule to me.)

And for those who are thinking ahead, yes, putting something in the middle can be read to mean “Versatile”.  (Which itself means “Bottom” to some guys, of course.  Off or On, Top or Bottom, Gay or Straight: they can’t conceive of anything outside of binary existence.  Bisexual is right out.)  Of course, you have to be careful with that location.  It’s a nicely symmetric place for handcuffs, but hanging your keys from the the belt loop in the back of your pants makes them hard to reach.

Color Matching

In the case of hankies (bandanas), there are a whole slew of colors out there, for whatever uses cowboys and construction workers and mechanics (whew, is it getting hot in here?) might use them for.  That and knowing that our ability to accessorize is what separates man from animals means that there has to be a use for each color.

It’s easy to reverse engineer the creation of much of the hanky code.  Navy blue is probably the most common bandana color, so it goes with the most common activity: fucking.  Since sucking dick is so tightly coupled with fucking, make it light blue (“fucking lite”).  Red obviously goes to fisting, yellow to piss play, and brown to scat play.  (Yes, Virginia, there are people into that.)  Black and gray are another heavy/light pairing, and get connected to S&M and bondage, respectively.

(As another possible derivation of Red=Fisting, red flags are supposed to be attached to loads hanging out the back of your truck.  I’m sure we can make some connection path to that.)

After the colors that you actually occasionally see in bandanas, and the big ticket leathersex activities that go with them, though, what about all the other bandana colors?  And what about all the other colors of the rainbow, whether they ever actually show up as bandana colors?  (Well, of course they do, or can, exist: go to the fabric store, get a yard of fabric, and break out the sewing machine, boy!)

Why Are There Multiple Lists?  Which One is Right?

It is doubtful that the different lists were both created independently.  Way too many secondary items match up the same on each list for true independence.  More likely, someone created an initial list, and then either (a) different people fleshed out items they saw as missing, or (b) someone tried to replicate the list from memory and got some things wrong, or [most likely, to me] (c) someone decided to “fix” the list, either to match his own preferences or to just make his own variant.

(Ask country line dancers about how line dances that date from pre-Internet days mutated as they propagated, due to either poor memory or “fixing” the dances, resulting in regional differences that are sometimes minor and sometimes vast.  It’s like a giant game of “grapevine”.)

(I was once told that the differences are likely due to geographic separation between East and West Coasts.  To be sure, there has historically tended to be a lot more north/south movement and interaction between leathermen than there has been east/west, at least until the expansion of cheap air fare in the 1990s made that more viable, so I can buy this as an explanation.  This also ties in with the geographic left/right dichotomy mentioned above.)

Decades down the line, of course, what was once intended as fun (or even as funny) now sometimes gets seen as a Holy Artifact of Old Guard Leather, as though Marlon Brando himself whispered it in the ear of Larry Townsend from behind a curtain and Mr. Marcus then transcribed it onto gold plates.  (Oh, I’ll burn for that one!)  And thus guys today encounter the Hanky Code and they think they are supposed to obey it, and to do that, they are required to memorize this super long list of color/fetish combinations.

This is bullshit.  No one expects you to memorize the entire list, nor do you need to.

(Of course, it is an understandable belief in its way.  PINs, passwords, pledges of allegiance, Boy Scout oaths, etc.: our society is heavy on memorization.  And for those of us who are founts of useless trivia, something like the Hanky Code is very doable.  If I can manage to remember the sci-fi codenames, real names, home planets, super powers, and origin stories of 50-odd members of the Legion of Super-Heroes and the order they joined over the course of 50 years of stories and 5 continuities, then pfft, 40 color/fetish combos is a breeze!  Any geek would agree.)

So what we get today is guys new(er) to leather encountering the Hanky Code and freaking out at the long list, convinced that they are being judged as a Real Leatherman on whether they can rattle off the meaning of a coral-colored teddy bear in a silver lamé jumper in the left pocket.  And thus they reject the entire concept out of hand.

(That would be a titleholder or pornstar who wants to cuddle and suck on your toes.  Just for the record, you understand.)

Is the Hanky Code of Any Use?

That depends on what you think the hanky code is or should be or could be used for.

Does it assure you of getting laid?  Fuck no.  (Or is that “No fuck”?)

Does it provide a means of non-verbal communication, an invitation to cruise, converse, and pick-up?  Fuck yes!

Don’t be distracted by the (fun) junk content of the long Hanky Code lists.  No one expects you to be able the tell the difference between Peach and Apricot (bears vs. chubbies) or Dark Yellow and Gold (heavy piss vs. three-ways) in bar light.  Hell, no one expects you to ever even see some of those colors for hankies in the real world.  (Although I know where you can buy most of them, if you’re really interested.)

(Let me stress here again: all the myriad colors and their fetish pairings are intended to be fun!  Peach is for bears because bears are fuzzy!  Mosquito netting is for outdoor sex because of the bugs!  Mustard is for “more than 8 inches” because mustard goes on foot-long hot dogs!  And so on!)

What you do need to remember are the Big 10 colors: Black, Grey, White, Red, Orange, Yellow, (dark) Green, (light) Blue, (dark) Blue, and Brown.  (That is: S&M, Bondage, JO, Fisting, Anything, Piss, Daddy/Boy, Sucking, Fucking, and Scat.)  Oh, and remember anything you like and want to flag, such as Piercing (purple) or Puppy Play (bone print).

(Orange is one of the major differences between the lists.  One list has it as Anything Top/Anything Bottom depending on the side, while the other has it as Anything/Nothing Now (Just Cruising).  I prefer the former, since it echoes everything else in the list better; it gives a pig play bottom something to flag without being needing a dozen bandana stuffed in the same pocket.  And of course, I’m simply confused about “Just Cruising”.  What the fuck is that?  Cruising is what we’re all doing when flagging.  If you don’t want anything, don’t flag anything!)

Does the Hanky Code Get Used?

The Big 10 are just about the only colors you will likely ever see being flagged, and thus the only ones you really need to be able to identify.  Yes, I have seen brown flagged: once at IML and once at MAL.  Not my scene.  I’ve also seen Purple flagged a couple times.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen most of the other lesser colors, or if I did, I didn’t recognize them for what they were.  In the local bar, the only colors I see with regularity are Red, Yellow, Dark Green, and Black (but that’s hard to notice in leather pants), and sometimes Gray.  Yellow seems to have become far less common in the past decade.

So back to the question: does anybody actually use the hanky code?  Well, I do.  If I’m going out to the bar — or generally any time on the weekends, anywhere around town — I have a hanky in my pocket.  (Usually a red one.)  Will it get me a “sudden date”?  Probably not, but on the off chance that someone will see it and approach me, it’s a whole lot better than not having it there!

If you go to any leather bar — and definitely if you go to a big leather event like IML or MAL or Folsom Street Fair — you will see people flagging, and you can be sure they are doing it quite intentionally.

If you are just out and about somewhere other than a gay neighborhood and you see someone with a colored hanky in his pocket, well, odds are against it, but he could be flagging (like I do).  Does he set off your gaydar?  Does he have the bearing of a leatherman?  As noted before, a hanky in the pocket isn’t an invitation to fuck so much as an invitation to talk about fucking.  So go talk (or at least make eye contact) if he turns your crank!  Worst case, he’s a clueless straight contractor.

So, Should You Flag a Hanky?

You know, that’s ultimately up to you.

I know several guys who are completely disdainful of flagging, apparently under the idea that some people — straight people! — flag unknowingly.  As best I can tell, rather than get their hopes up that some random person they see might be a fetish match for them but actually isn’t, they prefer to toss out the entire concept.  Cutting their losses, it seems.

Others can’t decide what they should flag.  Does yellow send too strong a message, will it ruin my reputation?  (Might make it, actually.)  Does light blue send too weak of a message?  (Depends on how much you like cocksucking.)  Can you get away with two hankies in the pocket?  (I say yes, but three is pushing it.)  Three in one and two on the other side.  (Mmm, no.)  Should I wear red in both pockets since I’m versatile?  (Hmm, I’ve never tried it.  Give it a shot.)  Do I just wear orange to cover all the bases?  (To swap around the line Tony DeBlase is famously credited with, only if you’re into kangaroo shit.)  Faced with too many choices, some guys freeze and opt for nothing rather than risk going too far or not far enough.

Myself, I know from direct experience that flagging sometimes does work.  (I was on my way to a fisting party in Berlin, to a bar I had never been to before.  Someone else on his way there noticed my hanky and helped me find the place.  We also played later.)

I’m also cognizant of the historical nature and value of flagging, and I consciously choose to propagate this behavior both to show my honoring of our past and to promote those older rituals which actually still work in today’s world.

Updated on April 6, 2010
You can even get a Hanky Code app for your iPhone!

I forgot to include links to various hanky code listings.  Fixed that.  It was remarkably hard to find one which featured orange in the top/bottom way that I think it should be.  And I found that Wikipedia’s entry has some oddities of its own, like attaching Rust to Pony Play rather than to Western Fetish like I think it should be.

There has been something of a renaissance of additions to the hanky code in recent years, such as:
  • Lightning Bolt Print (Electrical Play)
  • Bone Print (Puppy Play) — (with the color of the background signifying fist pup, piss pup, etc.)
  • Mint Green (Leathergirl)

Updated on February 11, 2011
A recent Facebook exchange with my friend Lorelei brought up the discussion of what a plaid hankie she once saw might mean.  I suggested three options:
  • Dyke Top / Dyke Bottom
  • Scotsman / Looking for a Kilt
  • Lumberjack / His Tree
(This last echoes off of the Rust hanky definition being “Cowboy / His Horse”, which is presumably Western Fetish/Cowboy Gear.  “Lumberjack / His Tree” would mean Outdoorsman Fetish — hiking, camping, etc.  Although now that it’s been proposed, someone will twist “Lumberjack” into shorthand for “Axe Play”.  Sigh.

Updated on September 8, 2011
Corrected a bunch of typos, added links, and revised/clarified some of the text, including adding the paragraph on gay bar names.

Three more colors which vary between lists:
  • White: JO (masturbation) or Not Looking, depending on the list you look at.  As mentioned above with the variances with Orange, why would you flag anything to signal you aren’t looking?
  • Rust: Cowboy/His Horse (which I read as Cowboy Fetish) on older lists, Animal Play on others.  Presumably meaning Furries/Animal Role Play rather than Zoophilia.  This may be a repurposing of an underused color to be something more common today, or it may be a total misconstruing of what “His Horse” would have meant in the 1970s.
  • Lime: Pays for Dinner/Dines off Tricks on older lists, Foodplay on newer ones.  Again, likely an example of repurposing an underused color to be something more common today.
And a mystery one from a recent Facebook thread: what should Steel Blue be used for?  One person suggested sailors.  I suggested some narrow slice of police (state troopers?), since it is close to Medium Blue.


  1. Wasn't the hankie code first used during the gold rush? When men would dance with each other left = lead, right = follow

  2. Good question. Wikipedia quotes Susan Stryker and Jim Van Buskirk's 1996 book "Gay by the Bay: A History of Queer Culture in the San Francisco Bay Area" saying that. And while it's possible, there's not really any evidence of it (that I've heard of) between then and the 1970s, which indicates that *a* hanky code might have been used then, but *the* hanky code -- the modern one -- is likely an independent creation, or at best loosely inspired by that.

  3. A good friend and long time, well respected leatherman here in San Francisco told me that he ALWAYS flags left. That way, HE decides whether to top or bottom. It's why I always flag red-left. ;)