We’re Loving the Push to Revive the Hanky Code for a New Queer Population
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The hanky code (aka “flagging”) was a way for queer men and BDSM fetishists of the 1960s and ‘70s to covertly signal their sexual interests in an age when seeking and having queer sex could get you arrested, beaten up or fired. (It can still get you fired in much of the United States, by the way.) Though it has largely fallen out of use, several queer people are attempting to bring it back into fashion, and there are a few artists looking to create a new hanky code or re-fashion it in new and interesting ways.
What is the original hanky code?
Different colored handkerchiefs signified which sex acts you were looking for (i.e., red for fisting, yellow for water sports), and the pocket position (left or right) indicated whether you were a dominant/top (left pocket) or submissive/bottom (right pocket) for that given sex act.
Here’s a pretty simple hanky code color chart:
As the hanky code became better known, marketers began creating meanings for every bandana color imaginable (dark pink for tit torture, leopard print for tattoo lovers, and so many more), but it’s unlikely that most people actually knew the entire spectrum because — as you’ll see in the much more complex hanky code chart below — who could possibly remember all 65 variations or tell the difference between orange and coral in a dark bar?
What is “the new hanky code”?
In the more modern age of legalized gay sex and queer apps, the hanky code has become more of a fashionable conversation starter at leather bars rather than an active way to solicit sex. Nevertheless, around 2014, a queer Los Angeles art collective called Die Kränken (The Havoc) began discussing what a new hanky code might look like.
Incorporating the sexual inclinations and gender identities of their members, Die Kränken designed 12 new hankies and created an exhibition entitled The New Rules of Flagging. Their new hanky code included hankies for polyamory, outdoor sex, the app generation, womyn power, Truvada warriors and “original plumbing” (which was either a reference to the trans zine or to urine and bathroom sex).
You should see all 12 examples of their new hanky code, but here are some of our favorites:
In addition to displaying the hankies, Die Kränken interviewed attendees to figure out which hanky best fit them. He then invited the attendees to perform a short, pre-choreographed dance demonstrating the spirit of each hanky. The Truvada warrior’s dance, for instance, had people mimic a scorpion crawling up their arm before confidently brushing it off and flinging invisible pills into the air.
We asked Jonesy and Jaime C. Knight, two members of Die Kränken, why their new hanky code was so much more explicitly designed than the in-the-know ’70s era code. They more or less responded, “Because we wanted to design something cool.” Their handkerchiefs aren’t for sale, sadly.
“The New Hanky Code” is also a hilarious stand-up routine.
In his 2014 stand-up routine, gay comedian Justin Sayre plays the Chairman of the International Order of Sodomites who announces, “The board is thrilled to announce that we will be bringing back the hanky code, but this time, it’s to talk about your damage.”
“Long have these issues laid in the shadows of a second date,” Sayre says, “but no more. We’d like to put it out there.”
In Sayre’s new hanky code, wearing a handkerchief in your right pocket means that you self-identify as having a particular issue, whereas the left pocket means you’ve only been called out on it, “so it becomes a playful game amongst friends.”
You should watch him explain it in the video below:
According to Sayre, white hankies now signify racists, gray equals boring, yellow is for commitment-phobes, baby blue means you have mother issues, pink stands for ingrained homophobia (i.e. “masc-seekers”), mustard means you drink too much, magenta is poor personal hygiene and so on, with hankies for conspiracy theorists, those who don’t like The Golden Girls and other groups.
In Sayre’s version, people can make up their own personal hankies, too (like charcoal for workaholic, eggshell for undiagnosed) and also assign hankies to one another. “We ask you all to be kind when assigning colors to other people,” he concludes. “Because remember, you’ll be wearing them too.”
And there’s also a Hanky Code film for queer fetish fans.
Hanky Code is also the name of a 2015 queer indie film made up of 25 shorts from different international queer directors that each explore a different color and fetish from the hanky code. It’s quite artistic, avant-garde and even a little graphic (the segment on piercing almost made our squeamish editor pass out), but it’s a fine piece of film that re-interprets the decades-old hanky code for a new age.
Have you heard about the new hanky code? Which hanky will you wear proudly? Let us know.
This story was originally published on May 6, 2017. It has since been updated.