Like many parts of gay male history, the actual origins of the Handkerchief (HANKY) code, are lost to the annals of time and historical revision. No one really knows who created the iconic look but there are a few theories.

It is thought that the modern hanky code started in New York City in late 1970 or early 1971 when a journalist for the Village Voice joked that instead of simply wearing keys 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 hankies.

Other sources attribute the expansion of the original red–blue system into today’s code to marketing efforts around 1971 by the San Francisco department store for erotic merchandise, The Trading Post, 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.


The purpose of the hanky code is to let your sexual desires, fetishes and interests be known to parties “in the know”, while protecting yourself from physical and verbal attacks from those outside, and within the GLBT community. But flagging didn’t begin with handkerchiefs, rather with keys on a ring. Of course, no one knows when, where or how this trend started either. But we do know that is was one of the many ways gay males devised to let other gay men know that they were homosexual and looking for sex, while cruising parks and public toilettes; also called cottaging.

Flagging has some basic rules, that should be observed if you are using keys or hankies or any other article of clothing. Not following these basics rules can lead to a good deal of confusion and misunderstandings, which negates the purpose of flagging in the first place.

It’s as simple as knowing your left from your right

Flagging is ALWAYS attributed to items worn on the left or the right side of the body, usually the back of jeans or along the length of the man’s arms. It can also be displayed in a general sense in the wearing of clothes themselves. But we will address this later.

Left Side

The left side of the body is for flagging that you, or he, is a top. Tops are sometimes considered the more dominant partner but it could also mean that you, or he, is more into giving than receiving. This can be seen in a guy flagging a yellow hanky in his left back pocket. He is saying that he is a piss GIVER, NOT DRINKER.

Right Side

If left is top, then right must be bottom. This does not mean that one is necessarily submissive, not that it would be a bad thing, rather that one wants or prefers to be on the receiving end of a fetish. For example, someone who flags with a blue hanky, in his back pocket, is looking to be the receptive partner in anal sex.

Both Sides

Simply put, these are versatile guys. They are up for being givers or receivers, tops or bottoms, or even switch hitting.

How to flag:

Yes, we are sure you know all about using the back pockets of your jeans, but you can also show your colours on wrist and arm bands as well as on jockstraps and leather pants. Sometimes this can be done with a subtle stripe of your colour of choice on the article of clothing, or the entire thing can be dripping in it. For example, wearing a yellow jock strap.

No, this within itself, might not always tell potential partners your preferred top or bottom preference, but it will let others know that you are interested in that particular sexual activity and or fetish.

Where to flag:

Basically, anywhere you want. Fetish and kinky guys are all around us, at all times. At your job, on public transport, even in your church. The purpose of flagging is to let others know your desires without bringing unwanted attention from those outside of our community.

Contrary to popular opinion, flagging and the use of hankies, never went out of style or disappeared. Members of the leather and fetish communities have kept the tradition alive and well for decades. This method has made cruising much easier and faster. And, it can also look really cool.

What do the colours stand for?

For the most part, the colour scheme has not changed much in the past few decades, and there is very little confusion about which colours represent which sexual activities. The following chart is from  Larry Townsend‘s The Leatherman’s Handbook II.

NOTE: Negotiation with a prospective partner remains important because, as Townsend noted, people may wear hankies of any color “only because the idea of the hankie turns them on” or “may not even know what it means”. (Don’t be one of these guys. Learn the code if you are going to wear the colours)

     Blue (Dark)Anal sex
     Blue (Light)Oral sex
     OrangeAnything goes

The above list are the basics that you will encounter out in the real world, leather and fetish events or even displayed on-line in a guy’s hook-up profile. But as we all know, da gays can’t eva keep shit simple!

We cannot say that there are a lot of guys who even know this full list, so we cannot attest to its wide spread usage. But, you do you boo.

Other ways to flag:

Other than using a set of keys or hankies other items are very popular.

  • Socks
  • Harnesses
  • Boot laces
  • Leather Vests

Flagging is a time honored tradition that has kept our gay male community safe while seeking other consenting male sexual partners. This is not just our history but our present and even future. If you choose to engage in this act, please respect it, those who came before you and those who are practitioners now. This isn’t the time to “reclaim or re-invent” something just because you feel like it. That’s not cool!

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