Secret Queer Symbols: A History

It wasn’t long ago that queer people had little opportunity to meet a hook up partner – not accepted by society, forced into closets and unable to speak openly about their desires. While things aren’t perfect yet – gay marriage is only legal in 25 countries, and some still physically punish those who are openly queer – we have come a long way as a society from the secret gay symbols queer folks had to use to indicate their interest.

One of the most well-known of these is the handkerchief or ‘hanky’ code, popularized in the 1970s. Depending on the colour, pattern and placement of a handkerchief, the wearer indicates the gender they’re interested in, whether they’re a top (left side) or bottom (right side), as well as the kind of sex they enjoy. For instance, a man carrying a grey hanky in his right back pocket is letting those around him know he’s into being tied up.

Photo via tomoffinlandstore.com

While the origins of the hanky code are murky at best, it is most see it as an expansion of the keychain code used in the early 1970s by those into leather play – simply, putting your keychain on the right side indicated you were a bottom and left indicated you were a top. Many attribute the colour expansion to Alan Selby, founder of Mr. S Leather, who was looking for a way to increase the use of multiple colours of hankies.

One of the most enduring and true stereotypes of lesbian culture, many masculine-of-centre or butch lesbians continue to use keychains to show their interests. For femme lesbians, a keychain or hanky wasn’t always the best accessory to have around which led to the process of flagging sexuality not with a bandana or key ring, but with nail polish. With many colours echoing those of the hanky code, some queer women will paint all but one or two nails the same colour and have the middle and ring fingers indicating their interest in women and the type of woman they’re interested in.

Now it’s 2019, and while some diehard queers still indulge in the hanky and nail polish codes, we’re lucky to live in a world – especially in Canada and the United States – where groups, meetups and apps like The PRSNLS exist. No matter what you’re into, you’ll find your match.

Download The PRSNLS today and get started finding your bear, butch, femme, twink, or anything in between and beyond.

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