The Hanky Code

In Hippo Eats Dwarf I note the prevalence of stories about secret codes that various subcultures are said to use to indicate their sexual preferences to each other. For instance, there was a scare a few years ago that high school girls were wearing colored jelly bracelets to indicate the sexual favors they were willing to perform. And objects hanging on powerlines are supposed to have secret meanings (such as sex or drugs nearby) to those in the know. And the Toothing hoax drew on the idea of people using bluetooth technology to send clandestine sexual propositions to those with similar technology in their immediate vicinity.

Apparently one set of codes that I missed are "hanky codes." Someone just posted about these on alt.folklore.urban. Gay men supposedly had an elaborate set of codes constructed around the color of their handkerchiefs and where on their body, on their right or left, they were wearing them. These codes could be used at clubs to signal their sexual preferences. A full list of these codes can be found at (the list is not in any way 'safe for work').

I doubt these codes were ever widely used, simply because they seem too elaborate to easily memorize. You'd need to bring a chart along to remember what each code meant. However, I do think it's possible that some people used them simply to say that they had used them. As I note in my book: Reality Rule 3.4. If unusual sex claims are physically possible there is a high probability they will become true—even if they aren't initially so.

Update: I've received a few emails assuring me that simplified versions of the hanky code are indeed quite popular in gay clubs. Bandanas worn in jeans pockets are apparently frequently substituted for hankys.


Posted on Sun Aug 20, 2006


*Some* hanky codes were definitely used, but probably not all of them. But the problem of memorizing them all wasn't a problem -- in the early days of gay clubs, guys chose *one* subculture and stuck with it, and within that subculture all that mattered was top and bottom. It didn't matter what all the things you weren't into meant.

Remember, we're talking pre-Stonewall here, back when admitting that a club *was* a gay club was a way to get it shut down and its customers beaten and/or arrested, when gay men talked about "friends of Dorothy" to avoid identifying themselves as gay before they knew they were safe.
Posted by rich  on  Sun Aug 20, 2006  at  10:02 PM
As I understand it the hankies were used to ID what specific type of sexual practice you were looking for. It doesn't seem like making an elaborate code concerning specific activities would be needed even in an openly hostile enviroment. The only code that would have to be vague is the intial orientation code, not so much how you like it otherwise.
Posted by Lonewatchman  on  Mon Aug 21, 2006  at  12:17 AM
I remember hearing about such codes when I was in High School. IIRC, there were about four colors, and left-right to determine position.. Of course, this was during the initial stages of the AIDS epidemic, and so it was presented as 'anyone you see with a bandanna in their back pocket is gay'.

As far as Reality Rule 3.4 goes, it should have its own subset: Reality Rule 3.4.1: If it is physically possible, no matter what it is, someone, somewhere, will be physically aroused by it.
This comes after I was sent an Emetephilia video by a friend. Do yourself a favor, don't google that word. I don't care how jaded you are.
Posted by Robin Bobcat  in  Californian Wierdo  on  Mon Aug 21, 2006  at  03:44 AM
i had a friend in high school who said that red bandannas in your back pocket ment you were gay... he never elborated on a code however... and i just made him get his right lobe pierced instead :p
Posted by joodd  on  Mon Aug 21, 2006  at  03:49 AM
I heard a story that neonazi skinheads use the riggings in their boots for codes. Can't remember 100%, but it was said that either yellow or white riggings (I am not sure which one) signalled that you killed someone.
Posted by LaMa  in  Europe  on  Mon Aug 21, 2006  at  04:25 AM
I do BDSM and I can assure you that "Hanky Codes" are used in certain types of club. Nothing as complex as that list; usually just to denote top/bottom and the more common types of activities. Anything after that is by negotiation between the two parties once they've made contact.

There's an "enamel badge code" starting up in the UK. Not sure how common it is and it's onfined to community insiders, but the motif indicates dom/sub/switch/swinger/trans and a few other variations. Just enough to help people identify possible play partners in clubs.
Posted by Sarah  in  UJ  on  Mon Aug 21, 2006  at  02:13 PM
I have an internetcafe so for me nsfw links do not exist.
Posted by Unfairly Balanced  in  Earth  on  Tue Aug 22, 2006  at  01:15 AM
I understand that a hanky in BOTH back pockets means, "This sudden cold snap has caused my sinuses to secrete a larger-than-usual amount of mucus."
Posted by Cranky Media Guy  on  Tue Aug 22, 2006  at  03:30 AM
The Hanky Code was most assuredly in use throughtout the late 1960s through the 1970s. However, there were only a few colors ever in any real use: black, red, and blue were basically it.

The huge list on the site is something of a joke: the story goes that throughout the 60s and 70s those three colors, along with maybe a half-dozen "ask me what this means" colors were in use in gay bars, when the Advocate, a gay men's magazine, posted in their April Fools issue the "full list," which is what's posted on my site. Nobody ever used the full list: given that 15% of the male population is colorblind anyway, hoping to meet someone wearing fuscia in a darkened bar is simply a set-up for failure and confusion.

These days a societal lack of inhibitions has led to the demise of the hanky code. If someone is wearing the code in a public place, it's mostly as ironic retro fashion.
Posted by Elf M. Sternberg  on  Sat Nov 04, 2006  at  02:42 PM
I work in a gay bar for 2.5 years now, and can assure that the hanky code colors are still being used... Although the whole range is not represented and most of the color-range in the hanky code remains unknowmn.
Hankershiefs are these days changed for leather wristbands (or in specific fetish clubs by leather pants/chaps) with coloured stripes or other details. The wristbands are nowadays also hyped by youngsters as a fashion item (under impuls of some known brands) without them understanding the full meaning of this code in the gay scene, which can lead to funny confusions.
Some frequently returning colours are white, red, grey, blue, yellow and black. Black is the most common color and has taken over the function/meaning of navy blue and has less and less to do with heavy SM practices, but just to denote the sexual active or passive position at penetration.
Posted by Jaimy  in  Belgium  on  Mon Jun 18, 2007  at  02:43 PM
The lists I've seen are ridiculous in their complexity. Red, blue, grey and black-- a blue bandanna fades to light blue soon enough, so those elaborations are useless. However, the other codes do exist and do get used. There is no need to memorise the entire code-- only the particular activity you are interested in. You will se each other, no one else will notice.
Posted by Stella  on  Fri Apr 25, 2008  at  11:32 AM
Don't doubt it at all. There is, in fact, a rather elaborate handy code used across several sexual subcultures. It is not just gay, but it started there in the pre-gay-pride days as noted above.

Now, then, not EVERY person looking for non-vanilla sex uses the code. Most only know the few colors they need to for themselves off the top of their memory. But many gay bars post The Hanky Code and most such codes are filled at the bottom with the more humorous or less-socially-acceptable items. Like men who like to fuck menstruating women, for example. Magenta, I believe?

Anyway, I just love the overall tone of 'doubt that this is real' in your article. You are clearly underinformed, which I hope is only because you really don't care, not because you put any real critical thinking or investigation into the issue.
Posted by Sparkplug  in  Seattle  on  Tue Jun 16, 2009  at  05:23 PM
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