Daniel DuGoff is the founder and designer of HOMOCO—a queer-friendly swim and summer apparel brand based in Brooklyn, NY. HOMOCO makes bandanas (from organic cotton!) but says, “There’s a code, but we say wear it around your neck and it means whatever you want it to mean. xoxo.”
The origins of queer cultures not-so-secret language.
Long before dating apps told others who and what we were looking for, our system of communicating interests offline was more creative—craigslist misconnections and opening lines at bars to name a few. For the queer community, historically speaking, it has been dangerous to be an out queer person. Being true to yourself could get you fired from your job, charged with a felony, and declared a sociopath by your doctor. The Hanky Code, a system of colored bandanas, was developed so people could communicate visually and safely.
Also known as “flagging”, The Hanky Code acts as a symbolic flag on your body. Pretty much every color of the rainbow, plus several color combinations, patterns, and even textures, stands for a specific sex act. And where you put the bandana, most commonly your back left or right pocket indicates if you are looking to be dominant or submissive in that activity. For queer people, the hanky code is a way to ask, “What’re you into?” while simultaneously preserving safety and initiating consent. The Hanky Code only works when both the flagger and the flagged understand it is exactly why the hanky code preserves safety within the queer community.
On first blush, the code can seem funny, however, its existence and history speak to the barriers to acceptance and lack of rights for queer individuals.
Why did queer people need to flag in the first place?
Only this month did the United States secure workplace protections for gay and transgender people. Anti-sodomy laws were overturned nationally in 2003, making gay sex acts legal for the first time in every state across the country, and Illinois was the first to remove these laws in just 1961! The American Psychiatric Association classified homosexuality as a “sociopathic personality disturbance” in the 1952 edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-1), and updated that classification only in the 1980s.
The origin of the code is unclear because of its secretive nature. Some historians point to the tradition in mostly-male California Gold Rush towns where some men would put either a red or blue bandana in their back pocket to indicate whether they’d lead or follow when dancing (this was not seen as particularly queer, but rather a way to pass time and unwind). Other historians point to men in late-1960s New York City leather bars who hooked their keys to their left or right belt loops (dominant/submissive) and see this evolving into the hanky code. The biggest piece of history points to born out of queer leather bars and the BDSM scene in New York and San Francisco in the early 1970s.
Bob Damron, a gay man who constantly traveled across the United States, published a pocket guide to the country’s gay bars called the Address Book. Damron listed only bars he visited himself (updating the Address Book as he traveled) and sold each copy of the book personally—you had to know him to get it. By 1980 there was a section of the book titled “Color Codes,” detailing the specifics of the hanky code. And since Damron essentially vetted each person who purchased the Address Book, he was ensuring the code stayed coded. The Address Book codified a system that was passed by word of mouth within the community for years.
Code as a Relic
The hanky code still exists, but more as a relic and tradition than a relied-upon way of hooking up. Our rapidly evolving liberties are one reason we no longer need the code (at least in the United States—there are still plenty of places in the world where being an out queer person is incredibly dangerous). The real reason for the hanky code’s decline is the internet: social networks and dating apps have made accessing your niche of the queer community easier and easier. Asking “What’re you into?” hasn’t changed, but the answer can be so much more direct when you are able to answer it in the privacy of your home.