Like many parts of gay male history, the origins of the Handkerchief (HANKY) code are lost to the annals of time and historical revision. No one 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, the 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 hanky code aims 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 GLB community. But flagging didn’t begin with handkerchiefs but with keys on a ring. Of course, no one knows when, where or how this trend started either. But we know that it 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 toilets, also called cottaging.

Flagging has some basic rules that should be observed, weather you use keys, hankies, or any other article of clothing. Not following these basic rules can lead to 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 body’s left or right side, 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, and 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, but instead 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 and 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 colors on the wrist and arm bands as well as on jockstraps and leather pants. Sometimes this can be done with a subtle stripe of your color 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 might not always tell potential partners your preferred top or bottom preference. Still, it will let others know that you are interested in that particular sexual activity or fetish.

Where to flag:

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 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 cool.

What do the colors stand for?

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

NOTE: Negotiation with a prospective partner remains vital 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 colors)

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

The above list is the basics you will encounter in the real world, leather and fetish events, or even displayed online 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 entire list, so we cannot attest to its widespread usage. But, you do, you boo.

Other ways to flag:

Other than using a set of keys or hankies, other items are trendy.

  • 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, and that’s not cool!

Tags: , , , , , , ,