Handkerchiefs and bandanas were used to signify preferences covertly (Picture: Getty)
Nowadays, we can put our preferences into our phones and find a perfect potential partner in seconds.
But there was a time when it was far harder to meet likeminded folks; a time when LGBT+ people had to find covert ways to meet and date.
In the 19th Century, some gay men in Britain used a language called Polari to communicate about their sexuality without hostile outsiders understanding.
‘Homosexual acts’ between males were criminalised at the time, meaning the consequences of being outed to the wrong person – let alone an undercover police officer – were severe.
Sex between two men (over the age of 21 conducted in private) wasn’t made legal until 1967 in England and 1980 in Scotland, and global attitudes to same-sex relationships have been slower still to change.
As a result, these codes and secret languages stuck around to offer LGBT+ people a level of safety to reveal their true selves.
One of these is the handkerchief code, which is believed to have originated in San Francisco after the Gold Rush.
A surreptitious bandana or hankie is far safer than outing yourself to potentially hostile outsiders (Picture: Getty Images/iStockphoto)
Also known as flagging, the handkerchief code involves wearing a hankie or bandana in a specific colour to nonverbally communicate.
It initially came about because of the shortage of women in the area at the time. At square dances, some men would wear a blue bandana to show they’d take the ‘male’ leading role, while others would wear red to signify they’d follow.
Far later, in 1970s New York, it was common practice for men to wear their keys on the left or right to signify if they were a ‘top’ or ‘bottom’. A writer for the Village Voice joked about using different-coloured hankies to display their sexual preferences, and the idea caught on.
The owner of the Leather ‘n’ Things store, Alan Selby, also claimed to have had a hand in the code. He said that his bandana supplier accidentally doubled their order, so he publicised flagging in order to sell the extra colours he had in stock.
Meanings of colours in the handkerchief code
- Light blue: Oral sex
- Dark blue: Anal sex
- Purple: Piercings
- Orange: Anything goes
- Green: Daddy
- Black: S&M
- Grey: Bondage
- White: Masturbation
As knowledge of the code spread, it was used across the US, Europe, and Australia, becoming particularly popular in the fetish and BDSM scenes.
A bandana worn on the left side signifies a ‘top’, dominant, or active partner, while the right indicates a ‘bottom’ or submissive partner. Different colours can then indicate more specific kinks and desires.
Black, for example, is for S&M, while dark blue is code for anal sex and light blue for oral. Green would be used by sex workers or people looking to meet sex workers, while purple shows a preference for piercings.
Fifty Shades may have even taken inspiration from the code, as a grey hankie signifies an enjoyment of bondage.
The handkerchief isn’t an invitation for sex, rather a conversation starter and semiotic system.
The wearer may not know about the meaning of the colours, or be intrigued by certain things but not actually want to be involved. For some, flagging is more about subtly showing that they’re queer than looking for a specific partner.
In the 50 years since the handkerchief code became popular, LGBT+ people are able to be more open about their sexuality. While cruising still happens, many people now find partners on apps like Grindr and Tinder.
There’s no need to wear a bandana to say what you want when you can tick a few boxes and say the same thing more easily. Similarly, it’s no longer necessary to test the waters with somebody face-to-face: if they’re on a gay dating app, they presumably accept that users will be gay.
But we should still remember those who went before us, and the unique methods they created to be able to live – and love – the way they wanted.
Help us raise £10k for Kyiv Pride and a UK LGBT+ charity
To celebrate 50 years of Pride, Metro.co.uk has teamed up with Kyiv Pride to raise money for their important work in Ukraine.
Despite war raging around them, Kyiv Pride continue to help LGBTQ+ people, offering those in need shelter, food and psychological support.
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Metro.co.uk celebrates 50 years of Pride
This year marks 50 years of Pride, so it seems only fitting that Metro.co.uk goes above and beyond in our ongoing LGBTQ+ support, through a wealth of content that not only celebrates all things Pride, but also share stories, take time to reflect and raises awareness for the community this Pride Month.
And we’ve got some great names on board to help us, too. From a list of famous guest editors taking over the site for a week that includes Rob Rinder, Nicola Adams, Peter Tatchell, Kimberly Hart-Simpson, John Whaite, Anna Richardson and Dr Ranj, we’ll also have the likes Sir Ian McKellen and Drag Race stars The Vivienne, Lawrence Chaney and Tia Kofi offering their insights.
During Pride Month, which runs from 1 – 30 June, Metro.co.uk will also be supporting Kyiv Pride, a Ukrainian charity forced to work harder than ever to protect the rights of the LGBTQ+ community during times of conflict. To find out more about their work, and what you can do to support them, click here.
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