“Is this your fisting hanky?” Ashley’s question yanks me out of my internet-induced reverie. I glance up from the shimmering screen of the laptop perched on my knee. We’re in the living room of her house, which is shared between a hippie, a Flames fan and two queers. She falls into the latter category, which explains why she’s dangling a bright red bandana in my face.
“I was at Anita’s,” she says. “I asked if I could borrow this but she said it was yours.”
The hanky is well worn and faded. Threads split away at the edges. Deep creases show where it’s been tied to fit around a neck or folded to be thrust into a pocket. “Nope, not mine,” I say. I take the scarf from Ashley and hold it to my nose. This bandana does not belong to a clean freak like myself; I’d guess it hasn’t hit the wash in three or four weeks.
I put my dog-like sense of smell and knowledge of the odors of my friends to work: this hanky has hints of incense, sweat and the kitchen of Lady Marmalade. I toss the scrap of fabric back to Ashley. “It’s Heather’s.”
True to my prediction, Heather calls me a few days later to ask, “Have you seen my fisting hanky?”
It seems like everyone I know sports a fisting scarf. I’d have trouble naming a single person in my immediate friend group who doesn’t publicly advertise their appreciation for hand-in-cunt or hand-in-asshole sex.
With so many red neckerchiefs running around it’s no surprise they go missing, get mixed up or find their way from pocket to pocket like migratory parasites in symbiotic relationships with their queer hosts. We are a nation of self-identified fist fuckers.
Ironically, the fisting flaggers of whom I speak are not gay men. The hanky code makes no allowances for the bodies of queer females or transguys, yet these are the bodies I see most often dangling coloured cloth from the pockets of jeans.
The code is a penile-centric system, with references to cocks and balls but none to cunts, clits or tits. In many ways, it offends the personal and political sensibilities of most of my friends.
Still, those bits of brightly coloured fabric swaying ass-level with their swaggers aren’t only for sopping up bike grease. They’re a tongue-in-cheek mode of communication, a snarky appropriation from gay male culture.
Traditionally, the hanky code functions as a cruising tool. It’s a means to communicate an orientation and a desire. Different colours, materials and patterns carry different meanings. Red, for instance, means fisting. Its placement, in back right or back left pockets, indicates preference for top or bottom position.
Red back left implies a fisting top (a fister) — someone who enjoys being wrist-deep in other people’s bodies.
Red back right implies a fisting bottom (a fistee) — a talented individual with the awe-inspiring ability to accommodate entire hands within the orifices of their nether regions.
The early roots of the code have been traced to the machismo of the Wild West. Bandanas, after all, are standard cowboy attire. True to form, San Francisco is credited as the locale of early gay neckerchief communication.
In the gender homogeneity of the Gold Rush era, men made dance partners of one another at community square dances. A few do-se-dos never made me want to shag but if I lived among hunky, sex-starved cowboys I might feel differently.
In any case, blue bandanas indicated men who desired the male role in the dance, red for those who desired the female. No doubt many of those guys danced their kerchief’ed partners out of the saloon and home to bed.
About a century later, the humour of a gay journalist in 1970s New York unwittingly revived the code. Critiquing the practice of clipping keys to belt loops to indicate top or bottom identification, he sarcastically suggested colour-coded bandanas as a more precise language. The idea was novel enough that it caught on, or so the legend goes.
The 1970s saw the invention and proliferation of an elaborate code capable of communicating not only position, but also sexual activity. There are hankies for oral sex, anal sex, bathroom sex, outdoor sex, shit play, cop worship and crossdressing, to name a few.
In random order, here’s a list of hankies that I sport: red left, white velvet left, purple right, grey right, purple left, black with white check left, light pink right, dark pink left, yellow right, black right, lime green left, navy right, light blue right, black with white check right, fuchsia left and white with multicoloured dots right.
Like the nautical practice of communication through the use of internationally recognized signal flags, the hanky code is a means to speak across distance.
The homo-inclined cowpokes of 19th century San Fran probably would’ve risked violence if they’d walked up to one another and openly inquired, “So Hank, wanna be my woman tonight?” Codes such as these allow for safe communication among marginalized sexual groups. Keys or hankies draw attention only from those who understand their social meanings.
But for all its utilitarian uses, the hanky code is problematic.
For one thing, it implies a narrow vision of sexuality. Not only is it inherently designed for to male-to-male desire, it also limits expression to a strict dichotomy of top/bottom relations. Absent from this dialogue are individuals who switch, individuals who prefer egalitarian relations, and individuals who reject identification on a top-bottom continuum altogether.
Also absent are a variety of other traditionally repressed sexual groups, including lesbians, bisexuals, transsexuals and genderqueers.
The code is equally troublesome on questions of race. An entire series of hankies is dedicated to fetishizing individuals on the basis of perceived racial status.
White lace implies desire for a white partner, while black, brown or yellow cloth with a white stripe respectively mean seeking black, Latino or Asian partners. Even just the narrow vision of ethnicity communicated by this code is troubling. It implies, through limited categories, that only those individuals identified as white, black, Asian or Latino are desirable — or even exist.
Sometimes, an act of appropriation is accompanied by an act of repurposing. Example: a red hanky, originally intended to imply penetration of a male anus by a male fist, appears out of the pocket of a female-bodied person. Suddenly the code is doubly queered.
Questions never before posited emerge: which orifice? Which gender? A light blue hanky, implying cocksucking, confounds further. Bio cock? Detachable cock? Tranny cock? Boy cock? Girl cock? Genderqueer cock?
In a sense, this act of appropriation is one of respect and nostalgia for a period of gay history never experienced by its young appropriators, this new nation of fist fuckers.
In another sense, it’s a cheeky statement, a silent diatribe in an argument waged over the definition and ownership of queer spaces.
It’s a joke. It’s ironic. It’s self-deprecating and offensive.
Because if my mother asks, this hanky is a neck warmer, a snot rag, backup toilet paper, an emergency bandage or an expression of love for bikers and cowboys. Certainly not a political statement. Certainly not an invitation to be beaten, peed on or fucked in the ass.