A Gay Cult Classic Returns

Before mainstream assimilation, gay men had a secret language all their own — the hanky code. Now a seminal relic in the annals of gay history, the code was used in the 70s and 80s to decipher the meaning behind various fashion choices made by those out for a bit of cruising.


This was the illicit atmosphere in which photographer and art reviewer Hal Fischer arrived in San Francisco from Illinois in 1975. He soon set about creating the not-quite-book Gay Semiotics — more of a text-image hybrid project about the hanky code, as observed among gay men on the prowl in the Castro district — that’s now being reprinted by Cherry and Martin gallery. These images depicted, for instance, the careful placement of handkerchiefs in the back pockets of jeans, alongside text that read: “A blue handkerchief placed in the right hip pocket serves notice that the wearer desires to play the passive role during sexual intercourse.” Hence hanky code, although keychains, earrings, and scarves were also part of the uniform and they, too, received similarly cheeky anthropological scrutiny.

Fischer also photographed a series of gay archetypes. The so-called Street Fashion Jock dashed about in satin gym shorts and Adidas sneakers, the Street Fashion Leather Gay strapped on chaps and leather boots, while the Street Fashion Basic Gay kept it simple in a flannel shirt and Levis.

The small art publication, which Fischer described as a “lexicon of attraction,” became a significant contribution to the canon of art theory and an important document of gay life in 1970s San Francisco — in spite of, or perhaps because of, it’s droll nature. The new edition recreates the look and feel of the original volume, reproducing in bound format those 24 iconic images from the gay cult classic.


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