Drew Cordes

Why I Flag (It's Not Just About Sex)

Filed By Drew Cordes | November 05, 2011 10:00 AM | comments

Filed in: Living, Marriage Equality
Tags: kink, leather

flag.jpgFor those who don't know, or for those who are just vaguely aware of its existence, "flagging" (aka the handkerchief, hanky or bandana code) is the practice of wearing colored hankies or bandanas on the left or right side of one's person to indicate an interest in certain sexual practices or fetishes, as well as a preference for being top or bottom.

The history of this custom is a bit fuzzy (for one perspective on its origins and color meanings, see here, or roll the dice with Wikipedia), but it's generally agreed upon that flagging's boom era was with gay men around the 1970s. Back in the days of the love that dare not speak its name, a man sporting a hanky could remain inconspicuous to straight people while openly signaling to other gay men that it was safe to make a move. If one wanted to get specific, the left side denoted a top, the right side denoted bottom, and colors such as black, red, grey, navy blue and yellow signified an interest in certain sexual activities, like S&M, fisting, bondage, anal sex and watersports, respectively.

As being gay became more socially acceptable due to more of us coming out and our gain of political power, the need for a covert code waned. Flagging's popularity endured mostly in the gay male leather/kink/fetish community, and slowly spread to other queer members of the kink community. Today, hankies and bandanas are flaunted not just by gay men, but by lesbian femmes, stone butches, genderqueers, trans folks, bois, bears, bootblacks, leather daddies, diesel dykes ... just about anyone under the queer umbrella who has a pervy side.

Being queer and having a pervy side myself, I flag. However, I don't display my colors because I'm looking for a good time. Well, not JUST because I'm looking for a good time. I flag because it's a link to my past. It reminds me of a time when people like me had to be silent. It reminds me that I'm lucky to live when I do, and that despite our ongoing struggle for civil rights I'm still privileged in many ways. I was able to transition from male to female safely and with support from friends and family. I can hold hands with another girl in public without fear. I enjoyed the sexual freedom of not worrying about antiquated sodomy laws. I can smile at my lesbian friends' marriage announcement on my fridge. Flagging reminds me of the queer people who were around before me, the struggles they went through, and the sacrifices they made to give me and my friends a better life.

For me, flagging is a way to connect to my culture, even when there's not another queer in sight. I want to keep our culture alive. I want acceptance, but I don't want to assimilate. Any people's quest for acceptance should never have to tread down the path toward homogeneity. The diversity of world's myriad cultures is a fascinating and beautiful thing. "Celebrate diversity" has become a two-word cliché, but forgo the eye-rolling skepticism and its message becomes powerful and relevant. Those who fought in the past didn't do so for the right to be the same as everyone else; they fought so they could be different and still respected. I want to maintain what makes us unique. A major part of our unique culture has its roots in silence; I don't want to forget that. I want to remember that I should honor my culture by always giving it a voice.

Flagging also is a way I can stay visible. Being traditionally femme-looking and being able to pass, it's easy for me to be mistaken as a heterosexual cis-female. This happens even when I'm in gay bars or other queer spaces. If I'm flagging, however, I have an identifier. It's true that most gay people won't know what the colors signify or what side is what, but they know it means something. They know it's a sign that the person wearing them is queer. Flagging identifies me as a member of the community.

A conversation I had this summer with a leather dyke in her 50s about flagging's place in our culture convinced me to start, and since I made the decision I'm noticing more and more young queers embracing the practice themselves. I hope this trend continues and I hope they're doing it for the same reasons of cultural preservation, visibility and historical deference that I do, but even if they're just looking for a great fuck, that makes me happy, too.

Oh, and P.S.: That picture above doesn't represent how I flag. You'll have to cruise me yourself to see my colors.


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The years have past ... and I don't need a flag to send out a signal saying, "I'm too old to do that."

Flagging is fun, but I usually assume there will be no hookup unless I'm at a queer and sex focused event. However, hankies also are incredibly useful, especially when traveling.

Also, have you seen the flagging flower as the solution to the difficulty common among femmes of flagging without pockets? See it here: http://www.etsy.com/listing/80115758/the-original-hanky-flowers-for-flagging

When I was a teenager, I loved handkerchiefs so I always wore one sticking out of my pocket to match my outfit. After I came out, my dad accused me of actually engaging in the hanky code, a thing that 1) I hadn't ever explored and 2) I never even would have guessed that he would have ever known about. Good times.

Wow, Tobi, that is too cute! Now if my hair were just thick enough to wear one. :)

Thanks, Drew. I think it is time to go get some bandannas.

Wow, I didnt know lesbians did this, but it's awesome. I am not looking for hook-ups (am blessed with the.most.awesome.wife.in the world, thanks very much!), but I am always wishing for some kind of code when I am out in the general public just to feel a little camaraderie with some ppl when I am out amoungst all the Midwest vanilla str8s.

Even today, I was in Trader Joe's, and ran into what really really appeared to me to be an older lesbian couple (based on a lot of stereotypes, I know, I suck!). I did kinda talk to them when we were bottled up in the wine section and waiting in line, but I kept it pretty distant. I would rather have talked to them like I would any other couple I struck up a conversation with, but I didn't want to offend them if I was wrong.

Here's a weird idea... how about just talking to one another. Interpersonal communication, it's a strange concept, huh?

But what if you're wrong? We dont all live in SF! ;)

Do Lesbians have "gaydar" like Gay men do? When Gay men see each other in public (and have never met before and nothing is ever said), an electric current begins to flow because we become a closed circuit. Carol, have you ever been wrong in the past? If so, maybe the Lesbian was being dishonest?

Flagging seems to me to be a thing of the past.
But I want to share an experience I had being in New York on 9 11, I arrived there 9 10 taking a one night break from a flight to Europe. Or, at least that my plan to fly out 9 12. 9 11 changed everything of course. But I was impressed by the huge number of American flags that sprang out from the brownstones on the streets of Chelsea and, more to the point, all the small American flags I saw in back pockets of gay guys I observed walking up and down 8th ave. It was as if everyone had the same impulse at the same moment. To say the least, it was moving.

Woody, I agree. Neo-flagging seems like yet another retro trend cannibalized from the past (like so much else in our culture). Flagging came from a time when people were really closeted... in a way that people (even people who are out) can't even imagine today. Doing it now is just a coy appropriate of what was once a life or death survival tactic. Totally... "oh, see by my flag, I'm a switch and an ethical slut, blah, blah, and I use a strap on, aren't I queer cool?" And like most other retro stuff, it rings hollow and superficial.

Correction: (even people who aren't out)... coy appropriation.

Gosh, I wish this site would allow you to edit your posts, or at least delete and repost them!