Fetishes fascinate me. Actually, it’s not the particular fetish that I find interesting, but more the journey of self-discovery that leads a person towards a particular fetish. For example, there is a fetish known as Tamakeri (Japanese translation: ball kicking) Yep, it’s just what it sounds like; the erotic pleasure of being kicked in the nuts. Uh… that’s a ‘hard pass’ for me, but I have questions.
How does a person with an erotic paraphilia (a condition characterized by abnormal sexual desires, typically involving extreme or dangerous activities) discover these desires? What was their “A-ha” moment? When does a man realize that he derives sexual stimulation and satisfaction from getting smashed in the balls? Was it a bad bounce on the playground? An unfortunate ricochet on the tennis court? And once a man discovers that hammering his nut-sack turns him on, how does he find others who share this very specific inclination towards CBT (cock and ball torture)? Inquiring minds want to know.
Fetishism today has become commonplace enough to be considered cocktail chatter. We’ve been spoiled by the internet, which has taken the mystery out of almost everything. In just a few keystrokes you can find any sort of group, club, or tribe that your dirty-mind can conjure. Finding like-minded gays is easier now, but what about then – back in the day? We tend to forget that there was a time, not long ago, when discussing one’s homosexuality – much less one’s homosexual perversions, was strictly taboo. So how did our forefathers find their birds together with similar flocks of feathers? One way was by using a little semiotic hanky-panky.
The clever and somewhat complex system of flagging that we’re most familiar with began in the subversive, underground leather and fetish communities of gay San Francisco. Men wanted a way to communicate their dirty little secrets to one another, without having to say anything. So those queers did what queers do best; they took an outdated and forgotten concept and made it fabulous.
As a result, the practice of stuffing a colored bandana into the back pocket of your jeans became a way of not only identifying yourself to other queers, but also signaling to them whether you were in a dominant (left pocket), or passive (right pocket) mood — as well as which direction your sexual interest was leaning.
Awareness, and the practice of flagging, didn’t really take off until the trend hit New York. When a writer for the Village Voice quipped that rather than using the existing system of hanging one’s keys on the left (dominant) or right side (submissive) to signal one’s preference, gay men should use a handkerchief instead, the concept of flagging reached gay communities nationwide.
While it was certainly popularized by the gay community, the idea of using a colored bandana as a coded language was hardly unique, or gay.
Origins of such unspoken signaling go back to the 1800’s and the hillbilly miners of the Gold Rush era. Legend has it that when Billy Bob and friends were looking to get their freak on at the Miner’s Ball, there weren’t enough female dance partners to go around for the do-si-do. With a ‘no miner left behind’ spirit, some men stepped up and volunteered to dance the female part, giving everyone the chance to strut their stuff. Those dancing the ‘male’/lead part wore a red bandana around their neck and those dancing the ‘female’/follow part wore a blue one.
At the end of the day (and enough moonshine), a hole is a hole.
As with any secret language, the hanky code’s details and specifics are up for regional interpretation, but in its most basic form, it relies on the communal agreement of two things: (1) The color of the hanky you choose to wear, and (2) on which side you wear it. Flagging to the left (wearing a handkerchief in the left pocket) signifies the dominant/top role, and flagging to the right (right pocket) signifies the more passive/bottom role.
For example: A light blue handkerchief worn in your left pocket signifies that you are looking to receive oral sex; wearing it in the right pocket signifies you are looking to give it. If oral sex isn’t you’re thing, not to worry, there are plenty of other colors in the hanky-code spectrum.
With that in mind, here is the basic color chart for all of us pervy flaggots:
Black – Heavy S/M
Red* – Fisting
Yellow – Watersports (Pee, urine)
Dark Blue – Anal sex
Light Blue – (see above)
Orange – Anything, anytime, anywhere
Grey – Bondage
Brown – Scat (poo)
Purple – Piercing
Kelly Green (the color of money) – Hustler
Hunter Green – Daddy/Boy
Black and White checkered – Safe sex
*How influential had the hanky code become at the height of its popularity? Ask The Boss. Does anyone remember the original album cover of Bruce Springsteen’s BORN IN THE USA album having a red handkerchief hanging out of his right back pocket? I do. Now, that image has been scrubbed from existence and the hanky has been replaced with a red baseball cap. Believe it…. or Not. Replacing the original image was a wise move, from a PR perspective. Any inkling that The Boss might like getting a fist up his ass isn’t going to help sell records to his American, blue collar fan base.
As with any secret language, the system has its flaws. A person’s wants and desires are ever changing as is a person’s mood, curiosities, etc. But flagging was never intended to provide an in-depth psychoanalysis of a person’s sexual composition. Flagging was, and is, a simple way of communicating basic information; a soft introduction.
The self-labelling flags we choose to wear are temporary labels, intended to provide enough information, to determine the likelihood of an erotic match. The hanky is an ice-breaker and in no way should be considered a deal breaker. Within each color there exists a wide spectrum of possibilities and interests but matching hankies is a good way to begin navigating the details.. Flagging shouldn’t indicate a person’s reluctance to suggestion, or thirst for variety. Everything is always up for negotiation.
The Hanky Code is a bit of history that has managed to expand over the years, despite the advent of the internet. New colors and fabrics have been adopted to accommodate the expanding range of fetishes being discovered, such as: aluminum foil/electrical stimulation; chain collar/slave role play; handy wipe/motor oil fetish; doily/public restroom scene; etc.
Today it is very common to see leather harnesses, arm-bands or most any type of fetish gear, trimmed with color derived from the Hanky Code. If you were previously unaware of the Hanky Code and were wondering why men were following you to the bathroom every time you wore your yellow-trimmed harness, now you know. You’re welcome.
Fortunately, in today’s society we can be much more comfortable about discussing who we are and what we prefer behind closed doors. And while we may not feel the need to wear a colored handkerchief to announce our personal tastes and preferences, we should acknowledge those who do. Or at the very least understand where this color-coded language came from and why it was created in the first place.
Whether or not flagging is for you is a personal decision, but before you brush it aside as an antiquated custom of an ancient past, consider this: There are many gay men today, especially Leathermen who proudly and publicly display their colored flags. For them, and many like them, these simple pieces of colored fabric can embody a much deeper message. They are worn as a badge of honor, a validation for an achievement or goal reached. Their flags are an acknowledgement of intimacies shared and boundaries explored within the brotherhood. The simple flags represent earned honors on their journey in the search for finding their higher self. The journey to find and reach self-fulfillment is a noble quest; who are we to question how to get there.
The Hanky Code is an important part of gay history and worth mentioning, if for no other reason then to remind us of our tenacity in overcoming the struggles of our past. Signaling and communicating in code has always been an unfortunate necessity for the gay community. But it speaks to the resilience of who we are. Being homosexual is a natural phenomenon, and it’s one that we needn’t justify or be ashamed of. That’s an important message to put forth, especially now, as we prance our way closer to the 50th anniversary of the gay civil rights movement. The fight for equality is not over. As America’s Next Fag Superstar, it is my duty to encourage you to be your very best and authentic self. So, stand up. Be proud of who you are. Do no harm, but take no shit.
Until next time…