Decoding the Secret Language of Gay 70s San Francisco

November 10, 2015
gay SF code

Photographer Hal Fischer rereleases his cult classic field guide to The Castro's leather daddies, jocks and cowboys.

"Are you a fister, or fistee? In 1970s Castro district San Francisco, the answer was right on the ass - a red handkerchief in the back pocket.

The Hanky Code of the pre-AIDS San Francisco gay community is lovingly documented in Gay Semiotics, the seminal work of photographer Hal Fischer, originally published in 1977 and re-released this month. The book is a cult classic field guide to gay style and expression - explored through photographs of nude men standing in trees, sadomasochistic contraptions, and the correct way to do poppers."

This is definitely worth a look.


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I write "I like porridg" on the interior of my right sleeve and "e" on the interior of my left sleeve to signify that I like muesli.

I read about the "handkerchief code" on wikipedia. Each color symbolizes a different bodily function...pretty disgusting and unsafe. No wonder why most of that crowd is dead.

pretty disgusting to be so weren't there

It's not being judgemental. It's all about taking responsibility for one's own actions.

damn queen, you mad tho bro?


I'm here to call bullshit on politically correct diatribes. If you don't like it, ask the moderators to delete my comments...that way you can continue to exist in your fantasy world.

Wikipedia? what a reliable source of information. I wouldn't describe sex acts as "bodily functions". The code was & is a time saver for men to show what there sexual interests are & the role they played in the activity. In your profile you don't even say if you are a top, bottom, or somewhere in between. There is also a hankie for safer sex practices. Since you get
tested every 3 to 6 months, you must be getting around a fair amount yourself.

As for most of "that crowd" being dead, I've been getting tested since 1988, as have many of my peers. In those days, even in major metro centers you may have had to drive 30 miles to get tested & wait 2 weeks for the result. "That crowd" is also responsible for pushing for more information to get out there & raising money for research.

If you would check a more reliable source of information, you would find that men in their 20's are the "crowd" that represent the largest percentage of new Hiv infections & other STI's. even though there has never been more info out there about how to protect themselves & their partners. "That crowd" did not have that advantage.

I'm sure you had fun in the 70s. Sometimes we look at the past through rose colored glasses. If the fun has no boundaries, there will be serious consequences. It is a victim mentality to constantly blame others for ones own bad behavior. I refuse to embrace victimhood. Being a sexual minority is not a religion. Embrace reality...and no, sorry to disappoint, but I am sexually conservative and careful. My "getting around" is wishful thinking and a childish insult. Grow up and don't take fits when people disagree with your ideology. Use logic, facts and clear thinking. Don't let emotions control you.

AIDS research and medication is not paid for by junkies in a bathhouse. It's paid for by Middle America...ya know, people you despise. As their demographics decline, so does the quality of healthcare, research, and availability of medication. They pay most of the taxes and healthcare costs. I work in the medical industry. Research is dead because of Obamacare. Costs have skyrocketed. If that isn't reversed, people will start dropping like flies again.

Even when "the crowd" knew that bathhouses were spreading AIDS, they still kept them open...and they remain open. Having unsafe sex with multiple strangers turns sex into a bodily function. And yes, you are correct about the millennials. The hook-up culture is prevalent and they often bareback at the drop of a dime...the one point we agree on.

We will soon see multiple deaths again. It cost $20,000 per month to keep an advanced AIDS patient alive. That worked when we had quality private healthcare. The crumbling Obamacare will not provide for those costs. When I work in the British Commonwealth, it's common to see wasting corpses walking around the gayborhoods...they are the result of socialized medicine. They only received a fraction of medication that AIDS patients in the US were receiving. I feel sorry for present and future AIDS patients.

Your comment is extremely crass. These were people. With lives, and loved ones.
What makes you so perfect?

I never claimed to be, and I'm the first to admit my mistakes. I simply embrace the truth. People change for the better if you tell them the truth. If you coddle bad behavior in "safe spaces", and "It's ok because we're victims!", nothing gets gets worse.

Defecating on sex partners and fisting are actually dangerous and revolting activities. It shouldn't be remembered as "the good old days". If you wish to embrace these activities, that's your business, but I reserve the right to express my opinion.

For a while in the 70s, the East coast and West coast hankie codes were opposite as far as dom/sub. I'm not sure which one survived. What was puce?

In the west village in the 70s & early 80s " Puce " meant you were a Slut and could be shared !!!!

well isn't that special.

that's funny.. today they don't need a hankie for that... everyone knows they can do it!!

I lived 2 blocks off Castro in 1977-9. I disliked the Castro Clone look very much and rarely went into a Castro area bar. I did not own a flannel shirt, earring, handkerchief or key ring. Call me old fashion but I like talking to someone first. But I can tell you that the clone look dominated the Castro in the 70's.

Leaving something to the imagination is an attractive quality.

Well thank God everyone saw the light and there was a shift in the community. It's certainly not every queen parading down the block now sporting a gay-fade pompadour.

It's a little late for this now, don't you think?

I find it amusing that some of you are being judgmental about these codes. Having a profile on a gay "dating" site is no different than using these codes. At the time, there was no Internet for "dating".

Keep in mind that at the time, you could still be arrested for being gay. These codes were, in many ways, the only way to safely "date".

You got that right! THE ONLY SAFE WAY YOU COULD FEEL SAFE ABOUT CHASING DOWN SOMETHING YOU LIKE WAS THAT IT TOLD YOU THIS STORY ABOUT THE GUY! Whether he was top or bottom, yeah most of the time you didn't perceive compared to today! And you hade to be safe and this code was a way. Remeber the bars would get raide and you'd be arrested for being in one. It was a way of life. I had my keys ,(the more you had the more the noise was to attract a person). The colors in your pockets and The Castro and South Of Market (SOMA) were two different worlds. I liked those times. Guys were guys and the sex was hot ! Times change .....

I apologize if the truth bothers anyone. I have to survive in the real world...that's why I call bullshit on PC propaganda. I suggest doing the same. You lose your fantasy world, but reality feels much better, in the long run.

I find the negative judgement on this blog to be quite ignorant and childish. Those were different times back then, and the hanky code was a safe way of communicating in the community as a whole, walking down the street, in a club, at the super market looking for a date, not just the baths or orgies. They were exciting times, because we were changing the world, we dared to wear a color if so inclined. We hadn't looked back from Stonewall, and Anita Bryant was a joke. Harvey Milk was a star taken too soon, he paid the price for standing up to be counted. You could still end up in jail for being gay, loose your home, loose your job and reputation let alone your life. And then the Plague came and we watched our friends die, and most of the world turned its back. We weren't allowed to visit our lovers or hold their hands in hospital, were weren't allowed to do much of anything because we were under attack like never before. Act Up kicked ass and thanks to Larry Kramer and many others we fought our way through it and still fighting. Have a little respect for those who came before you and fought that battle. You got no idea, no idea at all.

Wow, how heroic. I'm very impressed with your sermon...and how arrogant to assume that "I had it easy". I did live through some of that. I fought back, and found my own way through life. I didn't need some destructive radicals standing up for me. I stood up for myself. That group/generation could have made a positive impression, but it didn't. There was more bad than good. Snorting coke and getting gang-banged in a bathhouse will have serious consequences. These consequences are not the fault of the "conservative boogeyman" narrative that you have created. They are the fault of the individual.

You may disagree with Anita Bryant, but like you, she had a right to free speech. She never physically attacked anyone, yet she was physically attacked by cowardly gay radicals. (Attacking a defenseless woman does not mean that a man is courageous, it means that he is a spineless coward). I feel nothing but shame being "represented" by nut job "activists". They don't speak for me. And spare me your lectures. I'm not some teenager you can patronize. I'm "old" as well.

AMEN, rivermoose!
I was there during that time, too, and it astounds me that those who weren't think they know the moral character of us guys who were there, living in those times.
It's the difference between reading a history and assessing it through your mind's (limited) eye, and actually having been there: remembering the sights, the way the air smelled, the - and this is the biggest part of it for me - FRIENDLINESS of us "oldsters" at the time. It's like the difference between those who read about The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King's March on Washington in a book and those of us (like my parent's friend, being part of that historical walk, wondering if they'd be hurt (as was common for us Black folk then, or "hailed" - as it turned out). Sometimes, you just hadda BE THERE! It can't be described in any other way, except perhaps, thru oral history from someone who was there at the time.

The Castro now, when I visit it (and I was there a month ago [November 2015]), is visibly void of any of the warmth, camaraderie and that general 'hail-fellow-well-met' bonhomie we all had, especially the last 5 years of the '70s. It was a joyous time. My good friend, Tim Rivers, was one of THE djs of the time (Bojangles, the all-Black dance club on Larkin Street circa 1974-76), The Mindshaft, Bones, the (famous-as-an-all-gay-club, I-Beam 1977-79) and he used to say that 1978 was the peak year for gay society. It was not simply about paraphenelia we used to signal intent. There were real, fully emotionally functional men during those times.Ones who actually looked into each others eyes, say, "Hey man, lookin' good'" and kept on trucking', while smiling (yes, we ACTUALLY SMILED AT EACH OTHER IN THE OLD DAYS! GASP!) It still saddens me not to have been able to grow old with so many of them. The historical knowledge we had!!! We could easily fill in the gaps in the books that have been written about that time with far more intimate and small details. Hibernia Beach, anyone?!? (smile)
xxxc - or whatever his name is - was 2 years old when the gay culture was just emerging, but still having to fight for acceptance. I wonder how he can display such ignorance, but then, ignorance is rarely afraid of displaying itself, the province of those passing themselves off instead, as, morally superior. As Mark Twain said, "Youth is wasted on the young." So is History...

I totally agree. In the late 70's/early 80's being gay was not accepted and the Castro consisted of all "classes" of gay men, regardless of how much money people had. Everybody stuck together and there was a strong feeling of comraderie there. The Castro fought together and played together and there was a close-knit unity that doesn't exist anymore. Gay rights have been taken for granted and the majority of the gay men I see in the Castro anymore have a sense of entitlement and (I'm still dumbfounded about this) have no awareness whatsoever of the area's history and what the community went through. Sex at that time was a statement and a way to stay close to each other... at the time no one would ever have believed a disease like AIDS would ever exist.

I've seen gay life from the 80s until now, since I was a teenager. I have seen so much dysfunctional nonsense that i am desensitized to it. (and yes, I have already admitted that I'm not perfect). I have spent time in cities and gayborhoods all over the world. There are some decent guys in every place, but most people I have encountered act like idiots. If one acts like an idiot, that's how they should expect to be treated. Gay communities are fairly uniform with some regional differences. The place I spent most time in was Los about a place that eats its young. I have seen so many nice young people turn into meth addicts and ruin themselves, that I had to leave. Each individual has a choice to do right or wrong, but a dysfunctional, predatory environment doesn't help matters. I lost most of my friends to drugs, promiscuity and other dysfunctions. You can see some of them in porn movies. They started out as nice, ordinary people, but they choose to do the wrong thing instead of the right thing. That is the essence of the gay male community, regardless of time or place. I have many stories...I could write a book. Maybe I should do that...anyhow gay males are their own worst enemies. Gay rights are constantly improving, but the dysfunction continues to increase. I have no nostalgia about silly gay clubs on SM blvd, etc. I miss playing football in high school. Some lament about the bullying they experienced in school...and now "everything is great". I miss the bullies in school. They were honest, and I knew what to expect...unlike the f-d up weirdos I encountered in the gay world.

I actually knew Betty Berzon. She was a lesbian author, activist and psychotherapist. I brought up these issues to her. I imagined that she would preach some PC diatribe...she did not. She agreed with me. She actually referred me to a therapist, if I was feeling depressed about it. I'm not the only one who has these opinions.

That you sir for that awesome post. I to remember those times when the bars got raided on a regular basis and if two guys were caught dancing together they would be hauled off to jail.... I am 64 years old and I have seen much hatred. Young people nowadays have no idea.

thanks for this - too many people remain far too uneducated about their history, forget the context of the time and make too many snap judgements.

There's one in every crowd. The judgmental types are the saddest souls. Nothing is ever good enough. hence, unfulfilled lives.

I hold no judgements or strong emotions either way. I simply state facts and Mr. Spock. Those who engage in groupthink cannot handle contradictory statements about their steadfast ideologies. Dedicating yourself to some PC mantra based on lies is an unfufilled life. A Hollywood reference to this situation would be from the Matrix: you can choose the red pill or the blue pill. The red pill makes us aware of the painful truth of reality. Taking the blue pill allows you to stay in fantasy land...a blissful ignorance of illusion. I suggest taking the red pill. If some of you can't handle the truth, perhaps ask the moderator to remove the "offending" comments.

I've been harassed by cops before for harmless activities...aren't I allowed victim status?

Thanks, RiverMoose, for your post.
You're right, some people have no idea, no idea at all.
Today's strides in equality are a direct result of what we went through back then.
NO ONE should dare pass judgment.

F'real. You said it.

I don't respond to threats. I have been through more nonsense from both sides than you can imagine. I had to fight as well. You have no right to judge me or my perspective. I will continue to tell it like it is.

I see little difference in code then and profiles online today.
One thing that should be remembered it was late 70's and early 80's when AIDS knowledge was being discovered. It was a whole different world prior to AIDS. Condoms were to prevent pregnancy or for us a toy.

I came out in 1979. The summer before, in August, I was 21 and went to visit my uncle who lived in Lafayette, CA across the bay. He took me to an open air concern in Orinda. We heard Ella Fitzgerald and the hillside was lined with gay men, half-naked and I was scared shitless. I was also entranced. It was a key moment in my life and unbeknownst to my uncle, it contributed to my coming out the next year.

Damn queen. You got your rainbow awakening within from the Little Gay House on the Prairie. Sounds epic. :-P Some naked from the top half, some naked from the bottom half?

Maybe we should bring the hanky code back. On the Daddyhunt app, we can have little colored handkerchiefs and earrings in the squares so that we can quickly scan through our men in a Braille-like fashion to see who's into the idea of receiving our fists.

I concur .

I never really thought that the code had disappeared. I still see them occasionally in the leather bars. And leather wear often includes an accent color for preferences. Subtle but definitely noticeable and notable among those who are in the know.

That was a completely different era and the reason there were 'gay ghettos', as the saying was in those days, is because it was safer in numbers and it was downright dangerous to be 'out'. Losing your job/home/family were all regular consequences for the gay community. Also, gay bashing was a frequent occurrence. In 1992, a colleague of mine was beaten into unconsciousness in NYC by a gang of men because he was gay. He was in the ICU for weeks and no one was prosecuted for the crime.

Certainly there were stereotypes in those days, and the idea of being a family man and having kids was as inconceivable as life on the planet Jupiter. Those were different times for many reasons. It's easy to sit back and judge now, but for gay men in 1977, there were few options and there were virtually no role models other than what you see in the picture above.

There was much suffering on the rode to gay rights, and there still is.

" In 1992, a colleague of mine was beaten into unconsciousness in NYC by a gang of men because he was gay." That still happens quite often today, in large cities in all western countries...even in the most liberal cities such as New York, Los Angeles, and Berlin Germany. Haters and victims come in all colors, shapes and sizes...but the media only reports the incidents if the attackers are white. Thus many of the incidents go unreported, or they are listed in some obscure article in the back of local newspapers with few details. For graphic details, do a google search. One of the most shocking statistics came from Spiegel Magazine in Germany. 75% of LGBT in Berlin reported being attacked because of their sexuality...and most of the attackers were "new Germans".

For a long time I wasn't brave enough to come out to any one, it wasn't until September, 2002 that I finally told everyone. My dad had just passed and I had just found out I had AIDS, and I just couldn't fathom not being myself anymore. I lived in Florida at the time, due east of Kississmmee, which is where Disney World is. Happy to say I never went there because all I could think of was beating up Mickey, and I don't think I would have gotten any brownie points for that, ha ha. Anyway, back to the subject. No one should belittle anyone else on here. We're all the same if entirely different. It just doesn't pay to bash anyone, I know I haven't always been the most appropriate on this or any blog, but I'm never intentionally mean spirited. No one else should be either.