by Alexander Kacala
The gay community’s obsession with finding out the sexual proclivities of potential partners is not a trend of today. Questions like “into” and “looking for” have been around much longer than the modern dating apps we use today to ask them.
The Hanky Code
The handkerchief code (also known as the hanky code, the bandana code, and flagging) is the practice of gay men wearing various colored bandanas around the neck or in the back pockets of the pants. This system has been historically used by gay men to indicate one’s sexual fetishes, the sex one is seeking, and one’s preferred role — top or bottom, dominant or submissive.
Wearing hankies around the neck was common in the mid-to-late-nineteenth century among cowboys, steam railroad engineers, and miners in the western United States. It is thought that the wearing of bandanas by men originated in San Francisco after the Gold Rush when, because of a shortage of women, men dancing together at square dances developed a code: men wearing blue bandanas took the “male” part in the dance and men wearing red bandanas took the “female” part.
Claims vary over when the modern gay hanky code first became widely practiced. Some say it started in New York City in late 1970 or early 1971 when a journalist (not Michael Musto) for the Village Voice joked that, instead of simply wearing keys to indicate whether someone was a “top” or a “bottom,” it might perhaps be more efficient to announce their sexual focus by wearing colored hankies.
Others say that the practice was introduced around 1971 in San Francisco by a department store for erotic merchandise, The Trading Post. In Gay Semiotics, gay historian Hal Fischer writes:
In San Francisco, the signs began appearing around 1971. The Trading Post, a department store specializing in erotic merchandise, began promoting handkerchiefs in the store and printing cards with their meanings. The red and blue handkerchiefs and their significance were already in existence, and meanings were assigned to other colors as well.
Alan Selby, founder of Mr. S Leather in San Francisco, a famous gay leather and fetish supplier, claims that he created the first hanky code with his business partners at the store Leather ‘n’ Things in 1972, when their bandana supplier inadvertently doubled their order; he claims they invented the extensive hanky code as we know it today to sell their excess of orders.
Bob Damron’s Address Book
Starting in 1964, a businessman named Bob Damron began publishing guidebooks of all the gay bars he knew from his travels across the United States. “This book fits comfortably in the palm of your hand,” a description reads. “Despite its petite size, this book was an impressive accomplishment. Each one of the listings he had visited himself. Every last copy of the book he sold himself.”
The guides, called Bob Damron’s Address Book, featured various bars, bathhouses, and “cruisy areas” in cities from all 50 states. Also listed in the guides was the handkerchief code. The Saint Foundation archives contain the 1980 edition of Bob Damron’s Address Book, which explains the “color codes” from that year.
Today, the handkerchief code is still used, albeit not to the same extent that it was in the past, and there are many more colors expressing various desires, scenes, kinks, and fetishes. Take a look:
What color are you wearing?
Cover image from of The Guardian.