One of the most well-known of all the lgbt codes which helped to keep gay lives secret except from those “in the know” is the hanky code. Many people will have heard of it and know something about it, but these days fewer people actually know the original code and how to use it. Just how popular it is today is hard to say, though it seems to be popular on the internet and as a “theme” night in many clubs.
It’s an easy code to use
even if its not easy to fully remember, because like gender and sexuality flags
the code has expanded to include just about every sexuality and sexual interest
there is. All you have to do if you’re out on the town and clubbing is make
sure you’ve got the right colour hanky in the correct pocket. Imagine the
embarrassment all round if you were a bit colour blind and a man sees the
colour of your hanky and invites you to join him in some “action” you’d never
do in a million years.
There are much too many
hankies in the code to reproduce here today, so let’s try to find out where and
when it originated. This has been a problem for researchers for many years.
Being a secret code no-one wrote it down when they started using it, it was all
learnt by memory and word of mouth.
There hasn’t been a
definitive study of the history of the hanky code, as far as I can tell. This
is my personal interpretation of the evidence and information I’ve found and is
my own theory. I don’t claim this to be an authoritative theory and hope others
will conduct a proper study in the future.
There’s no real doubt,
however, that it began in the USA. Perhaps the heyday of the hanky code was in
the decades of the 1950s, 60s, and 70s. This period coincided with greater
activism for lgbt rights. As underground gay bars across America began to
become more visible communities coalesced along defined sexualities and sexual
The hanky code may have
begun as a secret code among gay men looking for casual sex in any location,
mostly public spaces, but when the 1940s leather culture began to grow the lgbt
community developed its own subculture of leather/BDSM which still flourishes
today. The hanky code was seen most frequently in the leather bars and clubs as
an open system of finding sexual partners.
But the hanky code has
never been just about the leather community. It was used and seen in many gay
bars across America and Europe. It is probable that the code is an amalgamation
of several earlier gay codes. The most recent of these being the use of keys
fastened onto belts (I don’t suppose it mattered if they were actually ever
used to unlock anything). Keys fastened on the left (front or back) indicated
that the wearer was a dominant sexual partner, and keys on the right indicated
a passive partner. This system was used a lot in the early biker/leather/bdsm
The left/right position is
echoed in the older practice of tying a bandana or handkerchief around the neck
or head. When positioned to the left or right the knot indicated the
dominant/passive nature of the wearer.
The hanky code may have
developed from these with hankies rather than keys gradually being used in back
Going further back into
the 19th century we may find the ultimate origin for the hanky code
with the early Wild West cowboys. The
stereotypical image of the American cowboy has etched its way into popular
culture through Hollywood films, and into the lgbt culture through the Village
The history of gay men in
the American frontiers has been emerging in recent years as a potential gold
mine (pardon the California Gold Rush allusion) for historians and the lgbt
cowboy-loving and rodeo subcultures. I don’t think this is the right occasion
to go into the history of gay cowboys and the like, as I want to concentrate on
the hanky code.
When we picture a Wild
West cowboy we often see them sporting a knotted handkerchief or bandana. This
was an essential item of clothing in the dusty arid states where dust storms
were frequent. Worn over the nose and mouth it stops them choking, and we often
see cowboy villains wearing it so when they hold up the stage coach.
The California Gold Rush
was a particularly male-dominated environment. Very few women travelled that
far west unless it was to settle properly. Even the saloons had very few
barmaids and female entertainers. In this environment social events such as
dances were often all-male occasions and men would dance with each other. The
need for female company was ever present and some men who couldn’t afford a
prostitute often turned to other men for sexual comfort.
Most of the sexual
activity was undoubtedly situational and casual and not truly “gay” in nature.
But there is never a society totally devoid of true homosexuality, and recent
research has shown that the Wild West was no exception.
I can imagine how the
hanky code could have begun. With sodomy in the US outlawed at the time gay men
had to be sure how far they could go with another man. It was very confusing,
because research has also shown that close physical contact, affectionate hugs
and sharing beds for the night, etc., was common in all sections of society in
the 19th century.
I can imagine a gay cowboy
meeting another gay cowboy for casual sex and realising there are more like
them around. But to keep their sexuality secret they developed a code, and the
hanky/bandana/key code may have originated as a means of spreading the
“knowledge” among the secret community of gay men in the West. Once gay cowboys
knew how to recognise another by the way they wore their hanky/bandana/key more
diverse meanings of colour and which side they were worn developed.
As I say, that’s only my
theory and is based on the very few facts that we know. Perhaps we never will