Race Bannon AKA member LoneWolfPig has been an organizer, writer, educator, speaker and activist in the LGBT, leather/kink, polyamory and HIV/STI prevention and treatment realms since 1973. In this article Race talks about the hanky code
Here in San Francisco we're about to enter the busiest kink and fetish time for our city, Folsom Street Fair weekend. Well, it used to be only a weekend. Now it's stretched beyond just the Fair itself with a smattering of related events into what's become nearly a full week of dozens of fun things to do.
There is the Fair on Sunday, September 29, with a projected 200,000 people attending. Then there are dances, sex and play parties, education events, bar nights, gear meetups, kink shopping, and more. There's so much to do you shouldn't even consider trying to do it all. Just pick from among the choices and enjoy where you're at.
I'm not going to go through all the events because it would take far more words than I have space here to write. What I will do is tell you one important thing.
You can get a lot of sex and play while you're here. A lot.
The city will be packed with tens of thousands of men from all over the world. Everyone's sex hunger level will be ramped up to its highest levels and the cruising and hookups will be plentiful.
Because you'll be seeing guys out all over town, often dressed in their fetish gear during both daytime and nighttime hours, the option to do more in-person, face-to-face cruising is better than a typical weekend when most guys default to the apps to connect. For that weekend, San Francisco is the place to be for any kinky gay man that wants to pig out and play.
Visuals such as how you're dressed and where you wear your keys help when cruising at events like this. But perhaps none sends a clearer message about what type of play you're looking for than the appropriate colored hanky.
Most kinksters are familiar with the hanky code, but if for some reason you're not, it's a longstanding tradition as a way for gay men to signal to others that they are looking for sex and the type of sex they want. The color indicates the type of play while wearing it in on the left, usually in a rear pants pocket, typically indicates top and on the right bottom.
Where did this tradition start? Most origin stories are some mixture of fact and conjecture, but the most commonly referenced initial origin story starts right here in San Francisco.
Wearing bandanas of various colors around the neck was a common practice in the mid- and late-nineteenth century among certain types of working-class men. During and just after the Gold Rush era in San Francisco there was of a shortage of women. So, the men danced with each other and developed a code.
One accounting posits that guys wore bandanas (hankies) on the left or right depending on whether they lead or followed while dancing. The hanky color may or may not have been indicative of positioning too. The theory is that this formed the foundation for how gay men eventually developed hankies into a simple way to communicate sexual preferences. Again, these accounts are to some extent educated guesses.
It appears the first modern hanky code developed among gay men in the early 70s, maybe earlier. It's difficult to pinpoint the beginnings because the trend caught on to varying degrees in different places.
As for hanky colors, some believe a few of the colors arose organically from common usage among gay men. For other hanky designations we know that someone must have intentionally assigned colors, patterns and materials to sexual activities that over time became known as culturally referenceable signals.
Some cite the beginning of the modern hanky code in the early 70s when a Village Voice journalist joked that a better way to indicate top or bottom besides wearing keys on the left or right would be to wear colored hankies. Another account is that Alan Selby, founder of Mr. S Leather, created the first hanky code with his business partners at Leather 'n' Things in 1972. Yet another account credits Del Tyson who worked at The Pleasure Chest in New York City with jokingly pairing up colors and materials with a wide variety of sexual interests and then including the list on printed cards inserted into each bag during purchase.
I don't think there's a definitive history of the hanky code but what we do know is that it's caught on and is here to stay.
Signaling our sexual interests with hankies seemed to be declining in usage some years ago, but it's obvious that they're in ubiquitous use again today. While the more popular colors such as navy blue for fucking, red for fisting, grey for bondage, black for SM and yellow for piss represent the most prevalent colors, do an online search for "hanky code" and you'll see a multitude of sites offering you a range of colors, materials and patterns for as many as 80 specific sexual interests.
My advice? Try to stick to the best-known colors. Even the most seasoned of us kinksters must reference a chart to know what many of the hankies mean. If you use a more obscure hanky, realize you'll be signaling to a smaller, rarefied group of men, thereby reducing your sexual fishing pond considerably.
Also, the more commonly used colors of blue, red, grey and yellow now show up in various leather, rubber and other gear. You might think the leather pants with the red stripe down the side look hot, but if you're not looking for a fisting buddy you might be sending mixed signals.
I hope to see you at Folsom Street Fair. If you see me, I'll likely be wearing a black hanky in my left back pocket and a navy blue in my right. But remember, for me and others those are just some main interests. Most guys, including me, could probably wear many colors in one or both pockets. Never assume that anyone wearing a hanky is telegraphing only that sexual interest. Instead, consider hankies a good conversation starter. Few of us like to lock ourselves into the sex represented by just one or two colors.
Race Bannon has been an organizer, writer, educator, speaker and activist in the LGBT, leather/kink, polyamory and HIV/STI prevention and treatment realms since 1973. He's authored two books, been published extensively, spoken to hundreds of audiences, created the world's largest kink-friendly psychotherapist and medical referral service, was a leader of The DSM Project that led to a beneficial change in the way American psychotherapy views BDSM, founded a groundbreaking alternative sexuality publishing company, been an internet radio sex talk show host, received national and local awards, and appeared in numerous documentaries. He currently also writes for the Bay Area Reporter and on his blog