In the decade bookended by the Stonewall riots and the advent of HIV/AIDS, urban queer male culture experienced rhizomatic transformation. The heady rush of political praxis immediately following 1969 left its intoxicating watermark on the economies of pleasure and desire queer men nourished from San Francisco to New York City.
It would be misleading, of course, to suggest that the first legible crystallization of urban queer male culture materialized in the 1970s. The vibrant cultural ecologies of the post-Stonewall moment were shaped by the multiplicity of queer male social and sexual histories, the coalescence of which sometimes resulted in the adoption of nuanced methods of sexual communication—like the hanky code, known also as the handkerchief code, the banana code, or flagging.
On the Hanky Code as Queer Male Semiotic
The 1970s hanky code, as described by American sociologist and historian Cindy Patton, generated meaning through the “semiotic use of bandanas of different colors,” the selection of which expressed interest particular modes of sexual practice. In terms of practice, an individual would place a handkerchief in one of his back pockets; when read alongside the handkerchief’s colors and patterning, the placement of the handkerchief in either the right or left pocket revealed the wearer’s sexual interests. The conceptual yoking of the handkerchief to sexual expression transformed the sartorial medium into a sexual text—exclamatory to those already versed in its coding schema, inconspicuous to those unaware of its signifying labor.
Despite the hanky code’s novelty and likely importance within spaces inimical to queer sexual expression, its emphasized substitution of articulated sexual particularity for more universal and universalizing signifiers necessarily flattens the nuanced economies of desire out of which the code arose. This hollowing of sexual difference, inadvertently effected by the creation of a system meant to augment sexual possibility, underscores the shifting potentials immanent to a critical concept of the medium.
One might consider, for example, the notional incongruities within Hal Fischer’s analysis of the hanky code as a paradigm of gay semiotics. In the following statement, Fischer highlights the imaginative variability of queer male desire and the correlative complexity of any signifying system operating to capture the nuances of that desire:
The gay semiotic is far more sophisticated than straight sign language, because in gay culture, roles are not as clearly defined. . . . Gays have many more sexual possibilities than straight people and therefore need a more intricate communication system.
Having established the relative depth of the queer male sexual imaginary, Fischer then proffers his descriptive account of the handkerchief qua gay semiotic, which, rather discordantly, unfolds in a language of monolithic absolutism and an almost transcendent stasis:
In the gay semiotic the body is divided into sides, the left representing the aggressive, the right the passive. Any sign placed on the left side indicates that the wearer will always take an active role during sexual activity. Conversely, a sign on the right side of the body indicates passive behavior.
Of interest here, in addition to Fischer’s situating queer sexual possibility as both a repository of difference and a chamber of sameness, is the reversal of the binaristic associations between passive/aggressive and left/right. Although Fischer’s subsequent capitulation that handkerchiefs may ultimately be “ambivalent signifiers because many individuals prefer to pick their roles after they pick their partners” only results in further equivocation, I would like to contend that the slippage visible within Fischer’s analysis illuminates an important aspect of the handkerchief as a medium and the hanky code as a mediated system of sexual communication.
The Immanent Contradiction of the Medium qua Signifier
My purpose in mentioning the specifics of Fisher’s analysis is not to critically glorify the presence of inconsistencies but rather to marshal those inconsistencies as evidence of the signifying medium’s inevitable potential for contradiction, confusion, and communicative failure.
In the version of the hanky code considered authoritative (likely because it is an aggressively distilled taxonomy and thus one more easily employed), the color-categories available for selection simultaneously seem to include so much as to bleed into one another and to remain so disparate as to confound any suggestion that the “hanky code” was used by any homogenized sexual culture (i.e., queer men). Because the handkerchief communicates not only an interest in certain sexual practices but also the “role” one prefers in the realization of those sexual practices, it is difficult to determine whether it was realistically possible to adhere to the code’s demarcations.
I would provisionally suggest that the emancipatory potential of the hanky code—its covert communication of vilified sexual desire—is limited by and also serves as a limit point of the capacity of any medium qua signifier to flatten difference. Placing a handkerchief in one’s back pocket as an urban queer male living in the 1970s revealed to potential partners the possibility of sexual pleasure in myriad forms; however, in its display and dissemination of this information, the handkerchief ossified queer male libidinal economies by sedimenting reductive binaries onto queer male sexualities. Insofar as the “information” expressed by the handkerchief dealt in heteronormative sexual scripts, the hanky code mobilized a medium that broadened the discursive reach of male queerness without unmooring the heterosexualization to which non-normative sexualities are relentlessly exposed.