The Handerkerchief Code

The Handkerchief Code was a movement in 1960’s underground gay subculture. It is known by a variety of other names such as the hanky code, the banana code, and flagging. It was born out of a need by gay men and general casual sex seekers to publicly communicate with each other their sexual preferences and fetishes to each other without raising suspicion in a time where homosexuality and essentially any and all differing queer orientations were viewed as threats by the status quo leaders. The general practice of the handkerchief code was that handkerchief or bandana would have a particular color that was known throughout gay underground society as corresponding to the sex in which an individual would like to engage in. Furthermore, the actual role one would engage in was indicated by the placement of the handkerchief itself. If placed in the left back pocket of a person’s pants, they were indicating that they wished to assume a top or dominant role. If placed in the back right pocket of a person’s pants, they were indicating that wished to assume a bottom or submissive role. All this subtlety that was still in plain sight was a form of quiet yet open rebellion by gay culture against the underground and it persisted this way for near decades as a vocal and effective means of subversion until the practice was adopted by the heterosexual normative and a form of, “reverse subversion,” took place.


The handkerchief or bandana itself was chosen as sarcastic, tongue in cheek dig at and against the heterosexual dominance that was ruling the 1960’s. The handkerchief is of course an item seen to be especially pertinent amongst the wealthy, upper class, and generally fancy straight men of the time that sought out and courted women with marriage proposals being the ultimate goal of the relationship, not stranger sex. Gay men instead turned this snobbish interpretation of the handkerchief around and flipped its meaning and use by literally using it as a signal to any and all comers that careless, almost anonymous sex was available to them should they match up in preferences. Following this strong revolt and subversion against something seemingly so simple as just the term, “handkerchief,” an extremely similar and nearly identical type of coup can be seen with the use of the bandana term as well. Bandanas have been seen since the California Gold Rush in the 1840’s and 1850’s as a sign of almost overly compensating masculinity and as way for heterosexual men to, in a way, flaunt their enviable level of masculinity for all the world to see. Even up to today the harshest of gangs, the toughest bikers, and bank robbers all employ bandanas to show off the strength and machismo of the various group that they have chosen to associate with. Once again, gay men in the 1960’s spurned this stereotype and used the bandana to indicate and openly request homosexual intercourse, which at the time was viewed as the ultimate threat to any and all well established heteronormative policies and practices that had been established in the United States. Whether related to the term handkerchief or the term bandana, the goal of attracting a random gay sex partner in public for scandalous rebellious sex was also done with subversion in the minds of the brave gay men who had first found the bravery to no longer suppress their queer sexualities and desires.


The first recorded mention of the handkerchief code in a mainstream publication is found in the Village Voice discussing the prominence of the handkerchief code in 1970 or 1971 New York. The explosion of the handkerchief code’s popularity rose to extreme and centered prominence with the similar rise of the gay rights and gay recognition movements. Subversion was now no longer a subtle pushback against heteronormative society but rather an open act in which the meaning of the colors of the bandanas was the only remaining secret. Open parties and enormous blocks of people would from gay sanctuaries in many sections of New York where people would gather, handkerchief displayed proudly, and now accost a sexual partner without any real need for sexual secrecy. In a sense, the handkerchief code was no longer needed due to the powerful steps forward made in queer identities over the three year span of 1969 to 1971 and gay men were now more than able to directly and openly ask other gay men for sex in public spheres that essentially served as a womb for open gay affairs and this was a situation that had not even been close to existing beforehand. However, despite the lack of need for the handkerchief code to exist, scores of queer identifying people continued to employ the code as a means of continued subversion that many queer people had grown comfortable with. In fact, the level of comfort had grown so high that handkerchiefs associated with the most boundary pushing and outer reaches of sexual acts were now being proudly flown as well. This illustrates down to the most basic psychological level that subversion compounded the queer narrative and became an essential portion of, for lack of a better word, fighting back against the oppressive heterosexual agenda that for so long had dehumanized and stigmatized any and all differing sexual identities. Now with a perfect opportunity to assimilate and narrow the theoretical gap between the oppressors and the oppressed, the oppressed consciously chose to remain comfortable with their color coded means of engaging in sexual flirtation rather than bow down and cow tow to the same individuals who had rejected their ways of life and love and who had now suddenly exhibited a more accepting change of heart that was far too late. The subverting handkerchief code was here to stay and was actually continuing to grow in prominence.


Subversion involving the handkerchief code had taken on a life of its own and now subversion could be seen in the handkerchief code itself. The original code set was made up of twelve base colors. Now going into the middle of the 1970’s, at the height of the universal sexual revolution, new members of the handkerchief code began to spring up that weren’t even handkerchiefs at all and these also corresponded to the changing status quo itself. For example, the growth in popularity of outdoor sex gave rise to the use of mosquito netting to indicate a desire for such an act with left pocket indicating a desire to be dominant and the right pocket indicating a desire to be submissive. The 1970’s saw the booming explosion of the party drugs such as heroin and cocaine. This directly led to the use of a Ziploc bag to indicate a drug related desire for the forthcoming sexual intercourse. A Kleenex eventually meant to indicate a desire for strong smells and odors. A doily paid homage to the gay lifestyle of the turn of century by indicating a wish for a team room situation. A cocktail napkin was related to a bartender and a bartender groupie. The explosion of interracial meshing and joined experiences led to a creation of a brand new genre of handkerchiefs were all races were accounted for in terms of tops and bottoms, dominants and submissive, and older man and younger man. The most outrageous and foreign of them all is that a fur handkerchief was developed indicating a bestiality related preference. Originally the handkerchief code in its entirety was seen as a means of subversion by just possessing queer themes and differing preferences from the time but had now advanced to subverting certain levels of queer identities itself within the same queer community.
It would take the HIV and AIDS epidemic to put any type of stopper in the handkerchief code. With gay people dying by alarming numbers that threatened to cause queer identifying people to go extinct, simple fear is what was able to postpone active handkerchief code subversion. In this scenario, I can tell a story from my own personal narrative. My aunt’s husband was from Iran and his brother emigrated to the United States with him in the middle of the 1980’s. His brother was an openly gay man and he engaged in handkerchief code activities from the moment he landed safely in Miami. For the first year and half of his arrival in the United States, he lived a happy and prosperous life living working for Eastern Airlines and actively engaging in handkerchief party events. However, he tragically contracted HIV in June of 1988. When my family members spoke to him, he said that the mistake he had made was agreeing to have sex with a young man sporting an orange bandana, which is considered the be far and away the most dangerous bandana to chose from as it means to indicate anything, anytime in terms of acts and desires. Even more tragic than his contraction of the disease was the fact that his brother, my aunt’s husband, was a hemophiliac, meaning that his blood did not clot properly and he needed to blood transfusions monthly from his brother in order to survive. The brother had carried the illness for approximately three months before he was made aware of his condition and therefore my uncle had received three polluted servings of blood and this led to him also being diagnosed as HIV positive. They would both survive for roughly a year before they both died from the condition in 1991, before I was even born.

The assault that HIV and AIDS did on the world at large can not be overstated but its most lethal impact was on the queer community. After living through a happy liberation in which queer people were at last allowed to express themselves amongst people that had endured the same harsh and unfair for treatment for the same years that they had was now suddenly decimated with the fear that death was imminent if one was to even contemplate having any form of sex. Overcoming the heterosexual agenda at long last was unfortunately replaced by a much more deadly and critical threat that was the only means by which queer liberation, expression, and freedom could be checked. In the court of public opinion, queer people were held somewhat responsible for the HIV and AIDS epidemics by the mainstream media and mainstream society due to the fact that alarming numbers of queer people were dying off rapidly and the media’s slanted reporting implied that HIV and AIDS were homosexual born illnesses. However, an additional insult to injury was that the beloved handkerchief code did not die out with the containment of queer freedoms. Instead, the same individuals that had damned both gay and queer people alike for even existing and seeking out sexual fulfillment had heterosexual descendants who were now engaging in an activity I will refer to as, “reverse subversion.” In my best Judith Butler impression, I define the term to mean when the heteronomative portions of society wage an assault on a staple of queer culture and attempt their own subversion on an activity that is subversive against them. In this case, heterosexual people were now basically capturing the handkerchief code while queer and gay people recovered from massive population losses and revitalized stigmatization and ridicule not seen since the 1950’s. In the new version of the handkerchief code, some of the most popular pop culture and celebrity icons of the day began to sport a handkerchief for their own gains. Axl Rose and Slash of the internationally popular band Guns ‘N Roses sported three handkerchiefs a piece in their pockets, around their heads, and around their arms. Bruce Springsteen showcased his handkerchief on the cover of his mega popular album Born in the USA. Even today, world popular rapper Lil’ Wayne possesses a handkerchief for both sexual and gang affiliations. The handkerchief code, a once ultimate beacon of queer pride had not been successfully commandeered by the heteronomartive it had originally rebelled against.

In this section, I can and will discuss my own experiences with the heterosexual handkerchief code. My older friends take a lot of pride in their ability to organize parties in the greater Miami and Fort Lauderdale areas for handkerchief related activities. So when I was 18 years old and a senior in high school, they invited me to attend one of the parties so I could just observe if I felt comfortable doing so. They way that the meat and greet situation is set up is more often than not a cheap motel to a hotel floor is rented for the evening by pooling everybody’s money together. The more expensive the floor being rented, the more people pooling their money, the wealthier the people, and in general the better looking the people are because some extremely good looking individuals are invited for free where an elder statesman of the group pays their cover. Not everybody is required to fly, or openly display, their handkerchief, but everybody mist bring a handkerchief so as to keep with the theme itself and not disrespect the tradition. Once the vast majority of people have arrive, the event commences like any garden variety party. Every available door on the floor is kept propped open so movement flow is much easier and exposure to each other is optimal. There’s food, drinks of all type, and just general commiserating and chatting with everyone regardless of their handkerchief color affinity. After about fifteen minutes of this schmoozing and discussing, males are split to one side of the room and girls are split to the other side of the room. Once on their separate sides, the individuals are ordered in accordance to the rainbow with shades or red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet being the set followed by the more unique and non color scheme associated ones such as pirate print and fur. Once this set up has been fulfilled, both sides break into the middle and attempt to find their partner. It is important to note that while a perfect match of red to red and blue to blue would be the expected to ideal fits, the overwhelming majority of the time people of different color choices select each other. Part of the reason for this is of course just physical, visual attraction while the other portion is that the colors at the very least have a very close linkage to each other. Also, it is completely common and accepted for queer advances to be made and if the one being advanced does not match up in attraction preferences and they respond rudely or offensively, they are immediately ejected from the party. It is intended to be a place of commiserating and comfortableness, not judgment and arrogance. Once two people have selected each other, they leave the primary room and select one of the open door rooms. Once they enter the room, it is common courtesy form the to close the door and put either a Do Not Disturb sign, a sock, or a coat hanger on the door to illustrate that the room is being occupied for essentially sexual purposes only. In most parties, it is required that a couple provide the host of the party with a safe that they intend to use. the reasoning behind this is multi purposed. First of all, it shows the host that the following event is being done with sobriety. Second of all, it shows the host that consent is obviously being adhered to. Third of all, it tells the host that in the event the word is shouted three times or more, barging into the occupied room is warranted and needed. The entire party takes place for roughly five hours and it usually starts at 9:00. It is by no means a requirement for someone to partake in sex but they must pay the cover charge and be courteous and respectful of all guests. Any other behavior not up to par will result in immediate dismissal.


With the dying down of the HIV and AIDS epidemic in the 1990’s and the resurgence of acceptance of the queer and gay community in the subsequent years, the handkerchief code has now undergone and bridging of the gap between the rivalry of queer and gay people and the heterosexuals who took over the code in the absence of LGBTQ people. Most parties are not mixed sexual with courtesy and good behavior being the essential portions of a successful evening. At the most recent party I went to, a newcomer used the term, “faggot,” when a gay person accosted him politely and in a respectful manner. As he should have been, he was terminated from the party and will be banned from further activities within the community. However, the highlight of that event was the mutual agreement that that type of hate speech had no place at a party where nothing but positive attitudes and good vibrations were accepted. When compared to how far the code predates 2014 and how it has changed and developed over the course of the decades in US history, it is a warm feeling to think that it is now a mutual experience that both queer and heterosexual people enjoy. From bashing and subversive behavior to sneaky reverse subversive behavior and now finally to understanding and acceptance, the handkerchief code has run the full gauntlet of the queer and heterosexual experience and has managed to not only survive, but thrive in the modern era of sexual identities and expressions.


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