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LGBTIQ identities

Flagging for some hanky panky – The gay handkerchief code and its unusual origins

Have you ever noticed a guy with a coloured bandana or handkerchief sticking out of his back pocket? Bless you for not knowing how wearing one became the symbol of a secret sex language. Here’s how to decipher what it all means.

If you’ve noticed a guy with a coloured bandana or handkerchief sticking out of his back pocket, there’s a chance he might have been trying to tell you something.

The hanky code has been a part of underground gay culture for over 40 years, and if you don’t know what it’s all about, relax. We’ll get you up to speed in no time.

Perhaps more prevalent in the leather community, you might still find a few practitioners of this means of secret communication. But what’s it all about?

Beginner basics

It’s pretty straight forward. Wearing a coloured handkerchief (or often a bandana) in a particular location on your body can be a way to indicate to somebody else what kind of sex you enjoy. Each colour or pattern represents a different sexual activity, while the positioning indicates your preference of role.

The bandana is often on display sticking out of a back pocket, or occasionally tied around the upper arm. Typically, the top role is worn on the left and the bottom role is worn on the right. To indicate a versatile preference of role the bandana can be worn around the neck.

This practice is referred to as “flagging”. So you could say that someone is “flagging red”, which would mean they’re into fisting. Worn on the left would mean they’re the fister, and worn on the right would mean they’re into getting fisted.

Fisting might seem like an extreme practice to some people, but fear not! The hanky code caters to a very broad spectrum of tastes. Here are some of the more common and widely known colour code meanings:

  • White: Masturbation
  • Cream: Cum fetish
  • Light blue: Oral sex
  • Dark blue: Anal sex
  • Red: Fisting
  • Yellow: Watersports
  • Pink: Dildos or anal toys
  • Hunter green: Daddy/daddy hunter
  • Dark grey: Bondage
  • Orange: Anything, anywhere, anytime
  • Purple: Piercing
  • Black: S&M

Advanced attire

The list doesn’t stop there by any means. There are plenty of other colours to choose from, though sometimes the precise shades and hues of green, blue and pink are tricky to interpret. Before pouncing on anyone, it’s worth having a chat to ensure you’re not mixing your magenta with your fuchsia, or your teal with your light green. As always, consent is important, so consider the humble hanky an invitation to discover more about its wearer.

The code isn’t just limited to plain coloured bandanas either. Other types of printed patterns, materials or objects can be used to indicate particular sexual preferences. Some of the more interesting ones are: celery, rope, leopard print, electrical tape, a teddy bear, toilet paper, tie-dye print and a plastic bag!

But don’t worry… If it’s too much to remember what they all mean, here’s a handy hanky reference guide

Hanky history

If you’re wondering how all of this came about, why don’t we delve back through time to investigate one theory about the origins of this curious cultural phenomenon?

Let’s go back to old San Francisco circa 1852. Nearly 35,000 people were making a living as cowboys or miners during the California Gold Rush, and most of them were men. The stress and loneliness of the work would have been crippling, so to provide an outlet for having some fun there was a lot of dancing and singing in among the camps.

With a lack of females, each man had to play a role of male lead or female follower during a dance. To signify which role they were willing to play each man would wear a coloured bandana: blue to dance as a male lead; or red to dance as the female following role.

Now let’s shoot forward 120 years to the 1970s in New York City. Members of the leather community were already wearing keys on their belt loops. Wearing them on the left belt loop meant they were a top, while wearing them on the right belt loop meant they were a bottom.

A journalist from The Village Voice, the first alternative weekly newspaper in New York, wrote as a joke that instead of using keys on the left or right pocket to indicate top or bottom in the bedroom, colourful handkerchiefs could be used to signal more specific interests. Perhaps he was inspired by California’s bygone times.

It seems as if the community were serious about adopting the amusing suggestion, and thus the hanky code was born… or at least that’s how the story goes.

Contemporary code

Usage of the hanky code was rife amongst gay and bisexual men in the 1970s, but waned in the early 1980s. As today’s digital technologies rapidly replace face to face cruising, the profile details and search filters on our apps are perhaps the modern day equivalent allowing us to locate our perfectly matched partners remotely.

Though fans of fetish wear may or may not be aware of the coloured trim that occasionally adorns leather, rubber or neoprene gear such as harnesses. Black, white, red, yellow, green and blue seem common at some of the edgier dance parties and cruise clubs around Australia, but maybe their historic meaning has now been substituted for a fashion statement instead.

man chest leather black yellow harness

As for the digital world, perhaps there’s an opportunity to keep this tradition alive by including a rainbow of coloured dots on the left hand side, right hand side, or even centre of mobile app profiles to give a quick visual clue as to what’s on offer. What colour(s) would you pick?

Remember, whatever you’d flag on your profile or pack in your pocket, there’s always room for some condoms and a sachet of lube or two. Even if you opt for a highly effective HIV prevention strategy like PrEP, or if you’re living with HIV and managing an undetectable viral load (UVL) , you might still get lucky with someone who prefers to rubber up — fortune always favours the prepared! Happy flagging.

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