New Women's Hanky Code


Two flyers, c. 1990s, one full-page with a “PROPOSED NEW WOMEN’S HANKY CODE” welcoming “comments and suggestions on updating the hanky code for women;” the other flyer is the result, with the code printed four times on the sheet for distribution, but uncut. Both in very good condition, and rare.


A wonderful moment of call and response within a sexual subculture. The first flyer advertizes a “PROPOSED NEW WOMEN’S HANKY CODE,” replete with a list of each color, its meaning in the “women’s code,” and the occasional “other/former significations” that link colors with their equivalents in gay male contexts. Added to the flyer in (photocopied) handwriting is the contact details of its author, including email (, postal address, and telephone number. The result of the proposition is another photocopied flyer—its background a faint paisley to mimic the handkerchief style itself—listing the results: forty-two colors and the (typical) note that “Wearing a hanky in the RIGHT pocket signifies Bottom or passive, in the LEFT pocket signifies Top or Active.”  The only addition to the initial forty-one colors proposed is a Neon Green hanky, representing “Casual Sex/Play Now!” The flyer itself, meant to be trimmed and distributed, is fittingly printed on neon green paper.

The history of queer color-coding is hard to separate from queer history itself since it combines sex and activism. Gilbert Baker’s invention of the first gay pride flag in 1978 assigned meanings to each color of the rainbow, a practice that has become tradition: both in Baker’s own lifetime with the addition of colors to the flag like lavender, the profusion of flags celebrating bear culture, bisexuality, and non-binary identity, and with initiatives like More Color, More Pride in Philadelphia, and Daniel Quasar’s “Progress” Pride flag. The colors of the hanky code, however, pre-date the pride flag, and are less certain: by 1976 the hanky code was described within the S/M community as a potential “media hoax,” fabricated as a joke in the early 70s—although by 1974 Scene and Machine made any hoax into a reality when they published the code according to Andrew Campbell in Bound Together (2012). Hal Fischer’s Gay Semiotics: A Photographic Study of Visual Coding Among Homosexual Men (1977) famously depicts the meaning of each color in handkerchiefs stuffed in the back pockets of gay men, and has been featured in iterations and exhibitions as recently as 2017.

Jack Fritscher, Leather enthusiast, photographer, and founding editor of Drummer magazine claims to have published “the first lesbian hanky code” in Drummer 31 (1979), which came from Pat Califia and Gayle Rubin’s BDSM group “Samois.” In 1984, the code was published on its own as a pamphlet by Mr. S Leathers in San Francisco, with thirty-four colors. The same year, On Our Backs sold silk hankies in eighteen colors by mail order, and published a list similar to S Leathers, organized in three columns, “Left Side,” “Color,” and “Right Side.” Each included the new category of maroon to signify menstruation fetish and expanded upon the color pink to include breast fondling—categories lacking from male-oriented lists. But as Gayle Rubin writes: “[W]hile there were individuals whose tastes undoubtedly ran the gamut, the more exotic colors were often worn more for humor than serious cruising.” Fritscher adds to the sense of fun in an interview where he praises the “semaphore of hanky signaling:”

I do find it amusing in a bar when a Leather dude, desperate as a rodeo clown, pulls a rope of twenty different hankies tied end to end out of the sleeve of his Leather jacket hoping one will seduce the hot guy he’s cruising.

From Fischer, Fritscher, Califia and Rubin’s use and appraisal of the style, this 1990s example of communally adapting and updating the code uses few words to speak volumes about how sexual appetites had changed: there are classic colors like fuchsia for “spanking” and orange for “anything goes,” but newer hankies include checkered for “safer sex,” black and maroon for “vampirism,” and silver lamé for “sci-fi roleplaying.” Whether or not people use these hankies, or use them in earnest, seems less important than the fact that debate over the hanky code itself seems enough to find the right partner. Have fun, be safe.


Andrew Raymond Campbell, Bound together: being-with gay and lesbian leather communities and visual cultures, 1966-1984 (University of Texas At Austin, PhD Dissertation, 2012) 

Hal Fisher, Gay Semiotics (1977) 

“Whatever Color is Your Hankie” On Our Backs vol 1. no. 1, 1984, digitized by Athabasca University, 

“Conversations With Leather: Jack Fritscher,” The Leather Journal, 24 February 2015  

Brooke Palmieri