Monday, 13 April 2015

Coded Lives : The Hanky Code

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 interests.

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 subculture.

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 pockets.

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 People.

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 know.

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