The Hanky Code [Edit]

Hanky Code

The Hanky Code is a longstanding tradition and means of communication within the LGBT community, most common in the gay male community. It is also known as flagging. The hanky code is a color-coded system in which an individual wears a specific colored handkerchief in their back pocket(s) to inform others of their sexual interests and roles.

According to Larry Townsend‘s The Leatherman‘s Handbook II (the 1983 second edition; the 1972 first edition did not include this list), which is generally considered authoritative, the hanky code is as shown in the table below. As well, placing a hanky in the left pocket indicates the wearer’s alignment with a top/dominant role, while a hanky in the right pocket indicates the wearer’s alignment with a bottom/submissive role. Townsend noted that discussion with a prospective partner is still important because people may wear a given color “only because the idea of the hankie turns them on” or “may not even know what it means”.

Color Meaning
  Black S&M
  Blue (Dark) Anal sex
  Blue (Light) Oral sex
  Brown Scat
  Green Hustler/prostitution
  Grey Bondage
  Orange Anything goes
  Purple Piercing
  Red Fisting
  Yellow Watersports

The longer lists found elsewhere on the Internet are more elaborate and the many color codes in them are less often used in practice, although some of these colors are offered for sale at LGBT stores along with free cards listing their meanings.



The wearing of colored bandanas around the neck as a practical accessory was common in the mid- and late-nineteenth century among cowboys, steam railroad engineers, and miners in the Western United States. It is thought that the wearing of bandanas by gay men originated in San Francisco after the Gold Rush, when, because of a shortage of women, men dancing with each other in square dances developed a code wherein the man wearing the blue bandana took the male part in the square dance, and the man wearing the red bandana took the female part (these bandanas were usually worn around the arm or hanging from the belt or in the back pocket of one’s jeans).

The modern hanky code is often reported to have started in New York City around 1970, when a journalist for the Village Voice joked that instead of simply wearing a set of keys on one side or the other (then a common code to indicate whether someone was a “top” or a “bottom”), it would be more efficient to subtly announce their particular sexual focus by wearing different colored handkerchiefs. Other sources attribute the expansion of the original red–blue system into today’s code to marketing efforts around 1971 by The Trading Post, a San Francisco department store for erotic merchandise, promoting handkerchiefs by printing cards listing the meanings of various colors.

Alan Selby, founder of Mr. S Leather in San Francisco, claimed that he created the first hanky code with his business partners at Leather ‘n’ Things in 1972, when their bandana supplier inadvertently doubled their order and the expanded code would help them sell the extra colors they had received.


With the advent of the internet, people were better able to connect and explore, express and discover new or existing fetishes. The hanky code expanded to encompass these fetishes, communicating interests through new colors and even new fabrics, such as leather or lace. The color system has also expanded beyond hankies to other accessories. It is not uncommon to have harnesses, singlets, or leather articles in a color derived from the hanky code to indicate a desired fetish or sexual interest.

Sociological Aspect

The Hanky Code is a prime example of a theory in sociology called Symbolic Interaction (SI). Symbolic Interaction is defined by applying meaning and value to people, places or things. It is a counterpart of instincts where we are born knowing certain information. SI is learned through experiences. For example, we are not born with the knowledge that Gucci is a high-end brand. Similarly, we are not born with the knowledge that red can symbolize fisting.