The handkerchief code (also known as the hanky code, the bandana code, and flagging) is a color-coded system, employed usually among the gay male casual-sex seekers or BDSM practitioners in 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 handkerchiefs (bandanas) is the manner in which communication of desires and fetishes is achieved. Wearing a handkerchief on the left side of the body typically indicates one is a "top" (one 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" (one considered passive in the practice of the fetish indicated by the color of the handkerchief). This left-right reality 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. Bandanas might be worn in the front or back pocket, 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 is no universally understood color code, and regional codes vary widely. There is general agreement upon the colors for more common practices, particularly those with an intuitive relation between the color and the practice, such as yellow for urolagnia; brown for coprophilia; and black for SM, but no absolute consensus for less common practices.
The wearing of various colored bandanas around the neck was common in the mid- and late-nineteenth century among cowboys, steam railroad engineers, and miners in the Western United States. It is thought that the wearing of bandanas by gay men originated in San Francisco after the Gold Rush, when, because of a shortage of women, men dancing with each other in square dances developed a code wherein the man wearing the blue bandana took the male part in the square dance, and the man wearing the red bandana took the female part (these bandanas were usually worn around the arm or hanging from the belt or in the back pocket of one's jeans). 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 whether someone was a "top" or a "bottom", it would be more efficient to subtly announce their particular sexual focus by wearing different colored hankies.
While the hanky code was widely used in the 70’s and early 80’s, it then went into decline for many reasons (the increased visibility of gays making it obsolete, the decline of cruising in the face of the AIDS crisis, etc.). In order to indicate that you were “flagging,” it then became popular to “double-flag,” wearing two bandanas to indicate a special preference (Egyptian style, for instance, would be signaled by black and light blue.) and to indicate that this was an actual flag and not just a prosaic bandana. By the 1990s flagging only remained popular in the Leather Community. However by the late Eighties and early Nineties, wearing a bandana out of one's pocketful became a rock 'n' roll fixture with bands like Guns N' Roses, particularly guitarist Slash who continues to wear one out of his back pocket. In addition to this, rappers like Lil' Wayne have also sported the look.
This table is drawn from Larry Townsend's The Leatherman's Handbook II (the 1983 second edition; the 1972 first edition did not include this list) and is generally considered authoritative. Implicit in this list is the concept of right/left polarity, left as usual indicating the top, dominant, or active partner; right the bottom, submissive, or passive partner. Negotiation with a prospective partner remains important because, as Townsend noted, people may wear hankies of any color "only because the idea of the hankie turns them on" or "may not even know what [the color] means".
|Blue (Dark)||Anal sex|
|Blue (Light)||Oral sex|
The long, elaborate lists found on the web are more imaginative and the many color codes in them are less often used in practice, although most of the colors in longer lists are offered as bandanas for sale at almost all LGBT leather stores along with free color code cards listing their meanings.
- Andrews, Vincent (2010). The Leatherboy Handbook. The Nazca Plains Corp. ISBN 978-1-61098-046-3.
- Stryker, Susan; Van Buskirk, Jim (1996). Gay by the Bay: A History of Queer Culture in the San Francisco Bay Area. San Francisco: Chronicle Books. p. 18. ISBN 0-8118-1187-5.
- Townsend, Larry (1983). The Leatherman's Handbook II. New York: Modernismo Publications. p. 26. ISBN 0-89237-010-6.
- Jacques, Trevor H. (1993). On the Safe Edge: A Manual for SM Play. Toronto: Whole SM Publishing. ISBN 978-1-89585-705-4.