Flagging Up A Few Things

Gaz Morris

Based in and around Manchester, Gaz has studied a BA and MA in various types of history at the University of Manchester. When not embracing his love for all things historical, Gaz can be found indulging his other interests of cooking, travelling and languages to whatever degree his current bank balance permits.

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When I was much younger – perhaps in the earlier years of secondary education – I became aware of an unspoken social code that persisted at the time, where the choice of a single ear piercing in a man indicated his sexual preference.

As it happens, and perhaps due to the multitudes of other social phenomena that I had to adopt and digest round about this time, I could never remember which one it was. Even now I’m not sure which ear I was told was the ‘gay one’, though a cursory internet search reveals that the jury is still out on some sort of worldwide consensus (perhaps it is regional?) – answers on a postcard, please.

The practice, which no doubt has some origins in truth, likely sprang up as a way to get around the tricky problem of homosexuality not being considered ‘acceptable’ in public and saving gay men the embarrassment of inadvertently ‘outing’ themselves. In much the same was as Polari was adopted by the gay community to keep communiqués strictly for the ears of those for whom it was intended, so too the ear piercing dichotomy was adopted for secrecy and discretion.

The notion of a secret form of communication within the gay community has some precedent, then. Imagine my complete lack of surprise, therefore, when I discovered that there was an unspoken system of communication going on today to get around the (sometimes) taboo subject of sexual preferences in such a way that only the people who shared that interest would notice. This practice of ‘handkerchief code’ (or ‘flagging’) involves wearing a handkerchief of the correct colour in the correct position to give out all sorts of information.

Somewhat unsettlingly, subtleties abound within flagging; get your choice of pocket wrong and you’ll give out a completely different vibe. A hanky placed in the left back pocket typically indicates that the bearer is a top (or dominant, in BDSM cultures), while a ‘chief borne in the right pocket indicates bottom or submissive. I can only presume that those that consider themselves ‘vers’ (whatever this indeed means) can wear two handkerchiefs (one in each) or else swap and change pockets dependant on their mood.

Further variation in this system involves picking the colour that corresponds to your chosen activity or vice.  At this juncture we come across two further minor points of confusion: namely, the colours are not standardised across all regions and countries, meaning that one thing in one country might get you something else whilst on your holidays. Further, the colours are not just the primary colours or otherwise distinguishable tones but (in a system of which only ultra-fashion-conscious gays could possibly conceive or comprehend) endlessly varied shades of the same colours in order to account for the huge range of preferences.

For example, dependent on your shade of orange handkerchief, you are either advertising that you’re up for anything, anytime [‘normal’ orange], larger gentlemen [‘apricot’] or sucking another man’s toes [‘coral’]. No doubt there are people for whom all three of those options are appealing, though I would be prepared to go out on a limb and suggest that there are fewer of these combinationalists than are those interested in one of the three individually.

I’m informed by Wikipedia that there are certain colours that are generally agreed upon (but still not set in stone – presumably by some sort of UN-backed homosexual hankie charter) because of the colour association with the activity. Brown, in this system, indicates coprophilia, yellow for watersports and black for bondage and leather. However, here again the subtleties of the system might get the better of the lesser-fashion conscious gay; aversion at what one might think to be a urinophile might actually (according to one guide, at least) have been an excessively well-endowed gentleman.

My question to those that might still use a system like this is simply, why? Surely, in this world of easy and free internet access, internet fora (I vehemently dislike the pluralisation of ‘forum’ to ‘forums’) can take the hassle and potential pitfalls out of the whole situation. The only conceivable scenario that I can think of where this might be preferable is if you’re not really sure what you fancy and decide to take out the hanky equivalent of a joker card – a multicoloured handkerchief. Even then, to find a ‘chief with every single possible colour on might prove quite the undertaking.

Still, who am I to get in the way of decades of honing, perfecting and tweaking because I don’t understand the nuances and intricacies of the system?  If, through layers of comprehension, people find solace and security, then I’m all for it.