Hankie-Panky

I have become obsessed with hankies. Beige hankies, purple hankies, orange hankies, yellow hankies with dog bones on them. Not cry-your-eyes-out hankies, but fuck-your-brains-out hankies. I've been so consumed that I've searched for a nonexistent hankie and have even begun a movement to codify a new one.

Adopted by dykes and straights, the kinky hankie code was created by gay leathermen in the early days of s/m culture as a way to communicate about sex; wearing a hankie (which is actually a colored bandanna folded into a square and worn in the back pocket) meant a guy was gay, kinky, and, depending on the color, into stuff from bondage to tit torture.

This form of cruising shorthand is still practiced in bars and other public places. If you wear (or "flag") a hankie on the right, you're a bottom; on the left, a top. Originally, the hankie code consisted of just a few colors to represent particular tastes and practices—black signified heavy s/m; red, fisting; yellow, golden showers. The simplicity of the system mirrored the ways gay men hooked up—in public and with very little discussion. When a red hankie on the right met another on the left, they found an empty sling and got down to it.

As more folks began putting these brightly colored invitations behind them, the practice expanded to include other colors and kinks. Today, depending on which code you look at—hankycode.com is just one of many—there can be more than 100 hankies. The basic hankie itself has been supplemented with satin, lace, fur, and even mosquito netting (which connotes outdoor sex).

While the revised hankie code pays tribute to the enormous diversity in kinks and fetishes, the proliferation of colors can result in confusion. Even the most navy blue (that's anal) of leatherfolk can't possibly memorize them all. There's nothing worse than checking out a nice ass in a tight pair of 501s with a blue hankie tucked neatly in the right pocket, and thinking, "Wait, is that light blue, medium blue, or robin's egg blue?" You want to know if you're on the trail of an oral fan, a cop, or a 69er. Among the rainbow of possibilities, there are the obscure (headmasters looking for students flag brown corduroy, armpit fetishists wear magenta, and tops who like Latino cocksuckers don light blue with brown dots) and the silly (a mauve hankie says, "I worship navels," pale yellow shrieks, "Spit on me!," and charcoal purrs, "I like businessmen in suits").

Some hankies have multiple meanings depending on who you ask. On multiple lists, maroon has been linked to three vastly different meanings—cutting, enemas, and menstruation. You could see how a misinterpretation might find a scalpel-wielding top in bed with a girl on the rag. Some codes differ according to gender: Lime green worn by a woman symbolizes a taste for humiliation, but worn by a man it takes taste literally, signifying tops who like to eat off their bottoms, who are often referred to as dinner plates.

For hawks (tops who like young bottoms) and their chickens, everyone agrees that the hankie features a Kewpie doll, but there's a rub: There are no Kewpie doll hankies, not even fabric for homemade hankies. How do I know? Because, as a cradle robber myself, I have searched the Internet, Kewpie doll collector sites, and fabric stores for the elusive bandanna. In my research, I discovered that in 1914, promotional squares of flannel with kewpie dolls printed on them were packaged with cigars. A few of these have survived, with antique dealers pricing them as high as $78 each. So I went where all desperate compulsive collectors go—eBay—and got a couple at a pretty good price, although one that was still high for a 10-inch square of material.

The hankie code may seem meaningless, antiquated, or ridiculous in 2002, especially in this post-gay age. But I think it continues to serve several purposes. It facilitates public connections, both anonymous erotic encounters and bonding between like-minded pervs looking to swap info and ideas. No longer the necessary secret language it once was, it remains a signal that most of mainstream culture doesn't know about. In the non-kinky world, a hankie is an announcement heard only by a few; among leatherfolk, it's a way for niches within the leather community to wear their colors proudly.

These days, I can't go to a leather event without being surrounded by dark green hankies. Worn on the left, it means you're a daddy; on the right, it means you're either looking for a daddy or you identify as a boy. Among queer leatherfolk, daddy is arguably the most popular archetype around, and he is seemingly omnipresent. Daddy is the subject of workshops, panels, personals, contests, erotic fiction, porn videos, T-shirts, buttons, and stickers.

Yet, there's an alarming shortage of daddy's counterpart, mommy. There's not even a hankie code for her, since mommy-boy and mommy-girl play is rarely represented in queer leather culture (it is to some degree among straight people). It is an important fetish missing from the hankie code, and I want to change that. Mommy can be a caretaker, teacher, mentor, and disciplinarian, not to mention the original love/lust object.

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