LEATHER WISDOM: “The Original Hanky Code”
NLA General Meeting of June 4, 2013
by: Boy Leo
First, I must say I was a little shocked and disappointed at the general lack of hanky code history. However, to be fair to the various sites I visited the subject has so many variances when a simple Google search is done that it is little wonder that these sites either missed the mark, dropped the ball, or simply just let the ball pass them by.
It was on Wikipedia of all places that I found some of the best online gems under “Hanky Code.” Apparently the wearing of various colored bandanas around the neck was common in the mid and late 1800 among cowboys, steam railroad engineers and miners in the Western US. Here it seems we find that San Francisco may have seen the emergence of the first gay use of “hankies”. Around the time of the Gold Rush there was a shortage of women in the west. Consequently at the social gatherings of that era men began dancing with each other in square dances. To differentiate how one man was to dance with another they would wear a blue bandana if they were the male or lead and a red bandana if they danced in the female role. The bandanas were generally worn on the upper arm, tucked in the belt or in the back pocket of one’s jeans.
The handkerchief code also known as the hanky code, the bandana code, and flagging is a color-coded system most often employed by the gay male casual-sex seekers or BDSM practitioners. The code is known in the leather subcultures of the United States, Canada, and Europe, to indicate preferred sexual fetishes, what kind of sex they are seeking, and whether they are a top/dominant or bottom/submissive. The hanky code was widely used in the 1970s by gay and bisexual men, and grew from there to include all genders and orientations.
Today, wearing color-coded hankies, usually in the back pocket or around the belt loop, is the manner in which one communicates their desires and fetishes. Wearing a handkerchief on the left side of the body typically indicates one is a “top” (a person considered active in the practice of the fetish indicated by the color of the handkerchief), while wearing it on the right side of the body would indicate one is a “bottom” (someone considered passive in the practice of the fetish indicated by the color of the handkerchief). The ideal of the left-right model is taken from the earlier practice of tops wearing their keys on the left belt loop and bottoms on the right to indicate being a member of the leather subculture. In the past bandanas might be worn tied around the neck (with the knot positioned on either the left or right side); around the ankle (when wearing boots or when undressed); or on other parts of the body.
There are many and varied color codes mostly due to regional and even cultural differences. Still there is general agreement upon the colors for more common practices, particularly those with a color related to the practice, such as yellow for piss play, brown for scat; and black for S&M. However, there is no absolute consensus for less common practices.
I found a few interesting bits of gay leather history on Ambrosio’s BDSM Site located here: http://www.evilmonk.org/A/menu.cfm
In one of Ambrosio’s articles about the gay male culture after World War II he writes: ” Just as an aside here, before and during the war, kinky folks seeking to identify each other would sometimes defensively ask, ‘Do you play the mandolin or the saxophone?’ to discover which of them was the masochist or the sadist by the first letter of these instruments. All this while wearing street clothes! The creation of a butch subculture by the gay vets began to allow people to specialize their sexual interests in a way that had been impossible earlier. Prior to this development it was not apparent that there were very many ways to be gay.”
Myself personally I had heard for years one way to determine gay from straight was to simply ask if someone was a member of “the family.” If they admitted that they were it was safe to begin talking with them about a possible hookup. If they appeared confused or otherwise not to understand the question you could excuse yourself and move on.
It is thought that the modern hanky code started in New York City in late 1970 or early 1971 when a journalist for the Village Voice joked that instead of simply wearing keys to indicate if you were a top or bottom that it would be better to announce their particular sexual focus by wearing different colored hankies.
For the purpose of my research I had the opportunity to ask some members of our community what they knew of the hanky code from when they first came into leather. Of those I spoke with only two could recall when there were only four or five colors. Both Daddy Lou and Dave Carranza remember the following colors and the play they were suggestive of.
- Black for S&M
- Blue for anal sex
- Yellow for water sports
- Orange for anything, anywhere
- and Red worn about the neck to signify you were gay.
Joseph W. Bean in his book, “Leathersex, A Guide For The Curious Outsider and The Serious Player” tells us the following in relation to symbolism and flagging. “Take all these things as points to be considered and discussed. Don’t mistake them for absolute requirements. Suppose a guy is wearing a red hankie in his left pocket, and you just aren’t interested in being fisted, or are not “yet” ready for it. Suppose he’s a hot man; in fact, excepting that red hankie, he’s just the man for you. Two things suddenly become important: One, you can’t just steer clear of him because it happens that he has one act in his sexual repertoire that isn’t a match with your interests; and two, talking through this point becomes essential before you get into a scene with this man. Chances are he’ll accept your limits regarding fisting, but he has worn his hankie and has every right to expect that if you don’t talk to him about it you share that interest.”
With this Joseph explains to us that the most simple of reasons to flag a color is to allow for the opening of a conversation wherein mutual interests are discussed and/or negotiation before a scene can begin. The hankie is the ice breaker and should not, at all, be considered a deal breaker.
For the closing of this journey I have discovered a profound bit of writing that highlights the importance of what just a single hanky could mean to the individual who wears it. In his book “Urban Aboriginals, A Celebration of Leathersexuality” Geoff Mains writes: “Leathermen choose their symbols as statements of their mythos.
A yellow handkerchief for example, is not just a sign of a man horny for piss. It is a statement of discovery and of open pride in that discovery. It speaks of joy found in forbidden behavior. Behavior that is very animal, but nevertheless human and real. Leathermen wear handkerchiefs for what they mean and often in the most public of places. They sport them like military decorations. They are statements of shared ritual and apotheosis.”
What Geoff tells us here is that these are earned honors. Each color is meant to be an earned flag of who that individual is and what they have achieved with their fellows, their mentors and especially their Dominant through shared experience and a personal elevation. These simple strips of cloth represent a personal goal to find a possible higher self.
Thank you for reading and I hope I have shared a bit of Leather Wisdom with you today.