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Man with several handkerchiefs on him, Creative Commons image from Wikipedia “Hanky Code”


Who knew that every time I mowed the yard and stuck a Kelly green bandana in my back left pocket to wipe my sweaty brow, I was also advertising that I’m a male prostitute for hire?


During World War II, many Norwegians wore paper clips on their lapels as a symbol of protest against the Nazi occupation (the story is told in Annie Jacobson’s forthcoming Operation Paperclip: The Secret Intelligence Program that Brought Nazi Scientists to America (Little, Brown & Company, February 2014) and the wonderful 2004 documentary, Paper Clips). It was an excellent and unobtrusive way through which the Norwegian people could express unity; just walking down the street, one instantly knew who one’s comrades in the resistance were, without tipping off the Nazis.


During that same period, the Nazis were using their own codes, the one most noted by the LGBT community being the pink, upside down triangle, which gay men who were sent to concentration camps were required to wear. Those who were believed to be both gay and Jewish were forced to wear a Star of David comprised of one yellow and one pink triangle. While the symbols were intended to identify such prisoners to camp guards, they also served as a unifying code for the prisoners.


The distinction between the two codes—the paper clips and the pink triangle—is that one was freely adopted by those who used it, while the other was forced upon its wearers. Of course, in the years since then, the gay community has adopted the pink triangle as a symbol of gay pride, although it’s safe to assume that many who wear it on t-shirts or bumper stickers have no idea of its history. Similarly, the black triangle, used by the Nazis to identify those deemed “antisocial”, has been adopted by the lesbian and feminist communities as a symbol of pride.
Over the years, the LGBT community has adopted a variety of different codes to identify itself or to label different types of LGBT persons.


Years ago, still naïve, I saw an ad in an alternative paper for a store that declared “TVs welcome”. I wondered why a store would allow carry-in televisions until a friend clued me in.

Often, those symbols or codes were used secretively, in much the same way that the Norwegians used paper clips, to identify one another without tipping off the non-approving and frequently gay-bashing heterosexual society. Many are still used today, embraced by the community, while others have faded away. We’ve got hanky codes, dress codes, earring codes, flags, rainbows, slang, and gaydar, which won’t be discussed here, because you either have it or you don’t. What do all these codes mean, and where did they come from? You could easily spend hours researching the internet, or just follow along in our handy guide to LGBT codes.


The study of codes is nothing new, although little research has been done in relation to the LGBT community, either as a whole or within its individual components (lesbian, gay, bi, trans). University of Washington Professor Gerry Philipsen developed the Speech Codes Theory as a tool to examine how language bonds and strengthens community ties. Philipsen’s original studies involved Teamsterville, a working class community, but his conclusions can be applied to any sub-culture or community. Among his six principles are the ideas that all distinctive cultures have their own codes, more than one code will exist within a community, and that the codes have a distinct psychology, sociology, and rhetoric. From “Friends of Dorothy” (see below) to “Dragzilla” (drag queen) to “Hasbian” (former lesbian), we seem to qualify.


As well-known as the pink triangle is, of course, the now ubiquitous rainbow flag. While there are conflicting reports about its origin, the most widely-accepted story is that it was created by artist Gilbert Baker in 1978 in response to a plea for there to be a community symbol. According to the article in Time, the original rainbow flag had eight panels, not the six we know today: “pink for sex, red for life, orange for healing, yellow for sun, green for nature, blue for art, indigo for harmony, and violet for the human spirit”. Pink and indigo were eventually dropped. Baker says he chose a rainbow because it represented nature and it “really fit us as a people because we are all of the colors. Our sexuality is all of the colors. We are all the genders, races and ages.”


While the pink triangle, rainbow flag, and the Human Rights Campaign equal symbol are proudly displayed today, there was a time when the community was unified by codes that served as identifiers. Fashion is the most easily recognizable code, such as the wearing of an earring for a gay man or a second earring for a lesbian, although, in all honesty, a man wearing an earring in a barbershop crew-cut era really wasn’t hiding much. Among verbal codes, the term “Friend of Dorothy” (or “Friend of Mrs. King” in England) dates back to World War II and was a subtle way for those whose gaydar was going crazy to inquire; to ask if one was a friend of Dorothy was tantamount to asking “are you a queer?”


cover art

Gay-2-Zee: A Dictionary of Sex, Subtext, and the Sublime

Donald F. Reuter

(St. Martin’s Press; US: May 2006)

Donald F. Reuter’s excellent reference book Gay-2-Zee: A Dictionary of Sex, Subtext, and the Sublime notes that the phrase has two possible origins, the first being the obvious reference to Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, played by gay icon Judy Garland (one wonders if Shirley Temple had landed the part, as originally hoped for, whether we’d be Friends of Esther, after Judy’s iconic performance as Esther Blodgett). The second reference is to biting humorist and wit Dorothy Parker, who was a “fag hag” extraordinaire, long before it became popular to be one. It’s not an unlikely leap to assume that the phrase started as a description of Parker’s circle of friends, but gained popularity throughout the US in the ‘40s as gay men unfamiliar with Parker’s social life assumed it was an Oz reference.


For women, the term “Boston Marriage” was historically used, although it applied only to women who were in long-term relationships. Originating in Henry James’ novel The Bostonians, the phrase has been applied to the relationships of such women as Nobel Peace Prize winner Jane Addams. Shortly thereafter, the terms “butch” and “femme” emerged, used to describe whether a woman was masculine or feminine in appearance and behavior, as well as the role she may play in her relationship. The two words grew in popularity during the ‘40s, around the same time as “Friend of Dorothy”, most likely because the war effort forced women into new domestic and military jobs where they were around lots of other women… and with the hubby off fighting, what’s a woman to do? However, “butch” and “femme” have been criticized in more recent years, as they stereotype lesbian relationships as mirrors of traditional heterosexual relationships.


From these more general terms, we have generated a slew of specific identifiers, used to label particular members of the community: lipstick lesbian (a feminine looking lesbian), bear (heavy-set hairy gay man), otter (thin hairy man), Saturday night lesbian (a lesbian who pretends to be straight during the week, most often for work reasons), twink (young-looking and acting gay male), twunk (a twink with muscles), baby butch (young masculine-looking lesbian), and on and on and on. Trust me, as immersed and rehearsed as you may be in gay culture, you don’t know them all, as many are regional or antiquated.


Some terms, such as “twink” and “lipstick lesbian” have become known in heterosexual culture, as well, but still aren’t universally understood, which leads to a word of advice: if you’re bi-curious and looking to experiment, it pays to know the difference between “top” and “bottom” or “butch” and “femme”. It can prevent some awkward “You wanna do WHAT?” moments.


Perhaps one of the most complex codes used within the LGBT community is the Hanky Code, a system that developed popularity in the ‘70s as a means for gay men to not only identify one another, but to identify sexual interests. Handkerchiefs were a more detailed code than had been previously used by gay men—the dangling of one’s keys outside of either the left or right pocket. The Hanky Code is widely believed to have originated in San Francisco after the Gold Rush of the 19th century, which just goes to show that Frisco has been a gay mecca since before anyone in the US knew what a “mecca” was.


Due to the lack of women in the Wild West, dances often involved men dancing with one another, with colored handkerchiefs used to distinguish whether one liked to lead or follow, according to the website Back in the Gays. Where one wears a handkerchief today is still an indicator: left means that one is a top (active), while right means that one is a bottom (passive). (The same left/right distinction is also used in piercings, with a left ear or nipple being pierced indicating that a person is more dominant, with right piercings meaning a person is more receptive; having both ears pierced simply means one is fashionable or a member of a boy band).


Just about every color or pattern has some meaning in the Hanky Code, including a light blue hanky with a white stripe (looking for a sailor), red and white gingham (has sex in the park), black velvet (likes to make videos), Ziploc bag (has or is looking for drugs), and grey flannel (likes suits). For a complete listing, check out this chart, which also lists some non-hanky codes, e.g., a handy wipe means one has a motor oil fetish, for instance, which elicits a “Really? Motor Oil?” response. Who knew that every time I mowed the yard and stuck a Kelly green bandana in my back left pocket to wipe my sweaty brow, I was also advertising that I’m a male prostitute for hire? I can’t help but wonder, should I ever want to host an orgy, where would I find a white handkerchief with multicolor dots? Thank god for Craigslist—it takes so much of the guesswork out of things. 


In the bisexual community, a “beer bi” is someone whose same-sex interests only make an appearance after a certain amount of alcohol, while a “heteroflexible” is one who is predominantly heterosexual but has an occasional dalliance on the other side of the fence. “AC/DC” and “switch hitter” are also widely-used, but are also well-known outside the bi community.


“She-male” and “FTM/MTF” have also gained cultural prominence, but the transgender world has an extensive language of its own. Years ago, still naïve, I saw an ad in an alternative paper for a store that declared “TVs welcome”. I wondered why a store would allow carry-in televisions until a friend clued me in. Today’s trans code is similar to codes for gay men and lesbians, identifying different members by type: crossdresser (one who enjoys dressing as the opposite sex), transgenderist (one who lives as the opposite sex without having surgical procedures), brick or truck (a rude term to describe someone unaccepted as female), and DQ (a female impersonator who has had breast implants), to name a few. These codes have been self-generated, meaning that the LGBT community has created them itself for their own purposes, and are distinct from those codes which the heteronormative culture has used to describe us, many of which are demeaning and intended to supplicate LGBT persons.


Not only codes have been used, speech patterns have been used as well, most notably the young man with a lisp who is assumed to be gay. The politically correct person will refer to our community as LGBTQIA, as opposed to the LGBT label used herein. For the uninformed, the “Q” stands for “queer”, a seemingly redundant addition, as LGBT seems to cover the queer spectrum. “I” is for intersex, referencing persons who are or have characteristics of being a hermaphrodite, possessing both male and female genitalia. The “A” has two possible meanings, the first being “asexual”, a person with no sexual attraction to either sex, or “ally”, a straight person who is supportive of LGBT causes and individuals.  I mean no disrespect to the QIAA members of our community by not including them, but this article does deal primarily with those who are LGBT. Plus, I’m a lazy typist.


Culturally, we have become much more open about who we are and how we communicate. In many parts of the world, codes are still a necessary part of life for LGBT individuals. Regardless of where you are, knowing the local lingo and codes can make your journey forward easier, and may just land you that motor oil fetishist you’ve been dreaming of.

Michael has been writing for PopMatters since 2000. His primary focus, aside from queer culture, is television reviews and commentary, and his article Male Bashing on TV has been reprinted in two college textbooks. He currently lives in Louisville, KY, and is a Lecturer of Communication Studies at Indiana University Southeast in New Albany, IN. As a teacher, he has an interest in the study of contemporary political rhetoric and argumentation. He and his partner Jim have been living in un-wedded bliss since 1995.


Tagged as: code | lingo
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