The History of the Handkerchief Code

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The History of the Handkerchief Code

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.

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.


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

Read more about the hanky code here!