Exploring the secret history of queer coded language

From hankies to flowers, we get the lowdown on some of the imaginative ways LGBTQ+ people have used coded language to connect with the community.

The image shows the back of a man's jeans with multicoloured handkerchiefs hanging out. The hanky code was a form of coded language adopted by gay men in the 1970s.
Image: The Gay Comic Geek via Facebook

Coded language, the hanky code, ways of dressing, the words we use – for centuries, queer people have found subtle ways of sharing their identities with others without catching the attention of an unaccepting society. Beatrice Fanucci takes a deep dive into our secret signs.

“Do you listen to Girl in Red?”
“No, ‘Sweater Weather.’”
To the untrained eye, this might look like a simple exchange on music tastes, but those who are privy to the secret meanings behind these words know that this conversation is, in actual fact, all about queerness. Essentially, if you know how to crack the secret code, what this conversation actually means is something like this:
“Are you a lesbian?”
“No, I’m bi.”

It’s a new coded language that the online queer community is using to find out if another person is a member too. Due to several songs she has penned about women loving women, the artist, Girl in Red, has become an online code for being a lesbian. The reason why ‘Sweater Weather’ has come to be associated with bisexuality is more of a foggy one, but suffice it to say that bi folks on social media have officially adopted it as their anthem – just like non-binary folk and other people who are questioning their gender have claimed ‘Hayloft’ by Mother Mother.

Many TikTokers are using these tunes in their coming-out videos, and a simple mention of the lyrics or the hashtags #girlinred, #sweaterweather or #hayloft can be interpreted as a signal to fellow queers.

Secret codes to identify oneself as queer to other members of the community are nothing new. In fact, they have a very long history, one that is rooted in a past of discrimination and persecution. At times when being queer was illegal, and LGBTQ+ life was relegated to underground bars and clandestine meetings, when secrecy was not only desired but vital, folks found very creative ways to communicate with each other. Let’s explore a few of the secret codes queer folks used in the past and the stories of how they came to be.

One of the more popular forms of coded language that queer people came up with to signal to others their own sexual preferences was flagging, also known as the hanky code. Different coloured bandanas that people wore in one of their pockets could indicate different desires, interests, fantasies and kinks. Want prospective partners to know if you’d like to top or bottom? If you were into sadomasochistic sexual practices? If you liked to be fisted? There was a colour for everything. The origins of this particular system can be traced back to the 1970s, a decade after sodomy laws criminalising same-sex activity were introduced across the US. It became particularly popular in the gay leather scene in big cities such as San Francisco and Los Angeles, where queer men organised around motorcycle clubs and leather bars.

As Columbia University scholar Nikita Shepard put it, the “hanky code both reflected and contributed to the sex-positive, nonjudgmental, liberationist attitudes towards erotic desire that gay, leather, and kink communities have long led the way in promoting”.

The hanky code wasn’t only popular among queer men, as mentions of it were found in the very first issue of the lesbian erotic magazine On Our Backs, published in 1984. The bandanas featured in the magazine – and thus used by women who love women to signal to each other – ranged from white lace for Victorian scenes, maroon for menstruation, on to pink for breast fondling. It showed how versatile this code could be and how easy it was to reinterpret the hanky code to fit one’s own scene.


A similar, though way less elaborate, system of signalling was earrings. Body piercings have been used by people since ancient times as a way to show status or caste, it’s a tradition that goes back to Ancient Egypt, as the pierced ears of Egyptian mummies show. Queer men’s tradition of wearing earrings as a way to communicate their sexuality is much newer. It dates back to the late 1970s when men started to wear an earring in their right ear to secretly communicate that they might be interested in other men. By the ‘90s, it was such an established “secret” code that the New York Times featured an article about the so-called “gay earring”.

Floral symbols have had special meanings in the history of the LGBTQ+ community (think of the association between lavender and queerness), and certain species of flora were used as a means to communicate one’s own sexuality. One such flower is the unnatural green carnation that came to represent male homosexuality, thanks to Irish author Oscar Wilde. The episode that generated the myth behind the green carnation dates back to 1892, when Wilde instructed his friends to wear green carnations in their lapels on the opening night of his play, Lady Windermere’s Fan. When asked what the symbol meant, Wilde obscurely replied: “Nothing whatever, but that is just what nobody will guess”.

Later on, scholars theorised that wearing a flower of an unnatural colour was Wilde’s witty way of mocking the idea, widely accepted in the Victorian era, that love between two men was also unnatural. The symbology behind the flower attracted the public’s attention again when the then-scandalous book The Green Carnation was anonymously published in 1894. The novel had characters based on Oscar Wilde and his lover and was later used in the trials against the Irish author.


Another flower used to signal queerness, more specifically, sapphic love, is the violet. The history of this secret code is a much longer one. It dates back to the ancient Greek poet Sappho herself. Her poetry contains many references to flowers, and mentions of the colour purple, and violets are frequent in her lines.

The history continues in 1926 with the play The Captive, where one female character sends violets to another. The play led to calls for a boycott because of the theme of lesbianism, and the association caused violet sales to plummet at US florists. When the play arrived in Paris, however, some women wore violets on their lapels in solidarity and protest. Modern lesbians have taken up the symbology to signal interest in each other.

Symbols weren’t the only forms of coded language used, words also played a massive role. One example is the phrase “friend of Dorothy” as a way to describe someone as gay. It was recorded as far back as the Second World War, and it is believed to be a reference to The Wizard of Oz. More specifically, the meaning was linked to the way the main character, Dorothy, befriended people who did not fit societal norms, something which, at a time when same-sex activity was illegal, resonated greatly with the queer community. At the time, it was a safe way to tell someone else that you were gay without risking outing yourself to people who may not be accepting.

In the late 1970s, this particular system caused turmoil in the Chicago area when the Naval Investigative Service was hunting down gay men in the Navy. Unaware of the meaning behind the phrase, they believed that Dorothy was a real person and launched an extensive investigation to find her and convince her to give up the names of all the homosexuals in her ‘ring’. Needless to say, they never found Dorothy, but they did spend millions of dollars searching for her.

Travelling even further back in time to the 1700s, the name of the infamous French queen Marie Antoinette became associated with lesbianism. In the 18th century, asking someone if they had “heard the rumours of Marie Antoinette” essentially became a secret code to discover if other women had sapphic attractions. The story is rooted in the great dislike that French people had for their queen. So much so that they started to portray Marie Antoinette in pornographic cartoons and pamphlets created to accuse her of all sorts of things, including performing “indecent acts” with women.

One phrase alone was clearly not enough for the queer community, so they adopted a whole coded language to communicate secretly with each other. That language was Polari and its origins most likely lie in 1600’s England, then developed through time. It was a mixture of Molly slant – the dialects spoken by criminals and other “undesirables” – East London cockney slang and Italian words brought home by sailors. While gay men used Polari to communicate with each other, the jargon was completely unrecognisable to most English speakers at the time, as well as today. It was a code that both protected queer folks from anti-homosexuality laws and acted as a kind of “gaydar”.


“It doesn’t always have to do with secrecy and protection,” said Paul Baker, the world’s pre-eminent Polari scholar, in an interview with Out Magazine. “I think it also has to do with forming an identity as an affected group, as marking yourself as different.”

While in most Western countries, this queer lexicon is not used anymore, there are places around the world where it is still necessary for LGBTQ+ folks to communicate in secret using coded language. In Putin’s Russia, the website gay.ru offers a course on how to speak ‘Goluboy’, a present-day slang that Russian LGBTQ+ people use to identify one another without being found out by the wider hostile society.

The fact that such systems of communication still exist today and they are born of necessity is yet more proof of how the queer community are not yet done fighting for liberation. 

This article first appeared in issue 377 of GCN magazine. You can read the full issue here.

© 2023 GCN (Gay Community News). All rights reserved.

This article was published in the print edition Issue No. 377 (April 1, 2023). Click here to read it now.

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Time For Change

Issue 377 April 1, 2023

Bold black letters reading TIME FOR CHANGE over a yellow circle, the cover was designed by GCN's Dave Darcy.
April 1, 2023

This article was originally published in GCN Issue 377 (April 1, 2023).

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