Humanity has a long history of attempting to signal things to each other without using words. For all our obsession with language, we have found it’s often much more practical to create visual codes, as a kind of shorthand for what we can’t, or don’t want to say.
The simplest example I can think of is the truce flag. A white flag, or just a scrap of your dead friend’s tunic that happens to be normally white, signals to the people you are fighting, “Oh god, oh god, stop killing me and everyone I know, we give up.”
A more complicated example is the language of heraldry – a complex system of symbols and patterns designed to signal to other people, “I’m kind of a big deal.” But more than that, the symbols, where they are placed, and the colours used can signal all kinds of extra detail. A certain type of crown signals, “I’m kind of a big deal because my brother is the King.” A wavy blue line can signal “I’m kind of a big deal because my family has a sweet beachfront castle.” This site has a great list of the more generally agreed on meanings assigned to the various animals, lines, and flowers that are used in heraldry.
In Victorian times, there was even a language associated with what flowers you gave people.If you wanted to tell someone they were beautiful, you'd give them a rose or an orchid. If you wanted to tell them that their beauty was the only thing they had to offer, you'd send them a Japan Rose. Some of them are pretty self explanatory - if you wanted to express to someone they had betrayed you, you'd send them Judas Tree. But some of the listed meanings are pretty inscurtable to the modern eye - for example to indicate doubt, or distrust, you'd send apricot flowers.
As overly complex and perhaps frivolous as these languages seem out of context, at the time they served very important purposes. In the medieval era, it simply wasn’t practical to list off your entire lineage on a first meeting with every person you came across – but your heritage was often what got you where you need to be, and your heraldry could do list it off for you. In Victorian times, it was impolite to say practically anything out loud, particularly anything emotional, and so they communicated with flowers instead.
|An example of teenage flagging from I Love Charts|
Of course, the other reason to use a visual code instead of words is because you want to say something covertly. Teenagers have always been obsessed with finding ways to say things covertly, and there are some fascinating examples of this in various teen age subcultures, even if you exclude the more obvious examples of fashion grouping like Goths, punks, or drapes. Pins, hair bows, sleeves, all sorts of things were used in various complex codes to signal messages to other teenagers “in the know”. What was being signalled was almost always “Yes, you can hit on me”, or “Don’t even think about it”, but the principle is the same.
In more modern society, there is an example of visual signalling that combines all three of these motivations - the practice of flagging, otherwise known as the Hankie Code. I imagine most of you would have at least heard of the hankie code in passing, but in case you haven’t, here is a very brief rundown. In San Francisco in the mid eighties, a cruising culture developed where gay men started actively congregating in public. Finding themselves in a society where it was at best, impolite, and at worst, extremely dangerous to say out loud that you were gay, the practice arose among gay men of wearing your keys on the left or right loop of your belt to indicate you were gay, and either a top or a bottom.
A local journalist is credited with jokingly suggesting that they start using different coloured hankies or bandanas to signal not only their gender preference, but their sexual preferences as well. A code emerged, linking different colours of bandana to different sexual fetishes. The practice of wearing them on the left or right to indicate being a giver or receiver of that particular fetish remained, but the specific meaning of each colour varied enormously from region to region, and scene to scene. I won’t go into the details here in case you happen to be reading this at work, but there are several comprehensive lists around if you’re interested in finding out more.
Since it’s inception, the hanky code has spread to the kink community, which is where I came across it. The kink community has a lot in common with the queer community – there are a lot of things we would like to say to those around us that we can’t say out loud; because it would be inappropriate, make us targets for harassment, or because it’s just too complicated to fit into a first conversation.
Flagging isn’t just about signalling that you’re available, and what you’re available for. It’s also about solidarity – signalling to other people that you’re like them, that they’re not alone. I honestly don’t know how to express just how crucial this feeling of community, of solidarity is. If you’ve always felt normal, then I don’t think you can imagine how essential it is to know that it’s not just you, that other people feel the things you feel. But then, I don’t know how many people have actually always felt normal. I think everyone has something they feel is weird, or abnormal – whether it’s as challenging as being queer, or as simple as being into stamp collecting when everyone else thinks it’s just scraps of paper.
While I would very much like to be able to flag my interests to those around me in order to access some of this delicious solidarity, as a queer, poly femme, I have run into a couple of issues as to just how to go about this. Since I very rarely wear pants, hankies are pretty impractical - although there are makers like this who have come up with flower shaped pins made of variously coloured hankies to address just this problem. But even if I did wear pants or use these hanky flowers, the colours that are most commonly recognised don’t really apply to what I want to say. I don’t have much use for the kink meanings in the hankie code- if I’m actively seeking a kink play partner I’m almost always out at a club specifically FOR kink, so the “kinky” part is pretty safe to assume. If I want to signal a specific preference, I’ll just look for the person doing what I would like to do, and ask them, or ask someone I know to recommend someone. This works because the Sydney scene is ludicrously small and inbred – I imagine in a larger scene it would be much less straightforward.
But when it comes to scoping other queers, I’m totally lost. Not only do I almost always look like the stereotypical Straight Woman (long hair, skirts, girly shoes and pretty nails), I’m also almost always out with my boy. Say we’re at a cafe, and a gorgeous waitress starts chatting to me about my Mass Effect character, and I would really, really like to give her my number. How do I signal in a discreet way that a) I would like to touch her boobs even though I look like I’m straight and b) My desire to touch her boobs has nothing to do with impressing or titillating my boy, and in fact I would prefer it if he wasn’t there. That’s way too much to write on the bill.
Happily, I’m not the only one to have been mulling this over. The lovely Laura Luna twigged me to a trend that went through the queer activism community a little while ago based around flagging using nail polish colours instead of hankies. There is a tumblr set up to showcase examples and discussion of what colours should mean what, but if you do some quick searching on Google you will quickly come across an enormous array of examples and discussion.
|From the Femme Flagging tumblr|
While I’m a bit behind the curve with this trend, I’d like to give it some exposure anyway because I think it’s a really great idea that should be more widely embraced. I also really dig the way this trend has appropriated what the nail community usually refer to as “feature nails” (having one nail on a hand a different colour or design to the rest) and given it social implications. I have always been a big fan of this kind of appropriation – to me it harks back to the teenagers putting their hair bows in certain places to add implication to something others thought was entirely frivolous.
The other reason I really want to give some signal boost to this idea is that a visual language takes time and consensus to develop. Unlike heraldry, there is no specific organisation to sit down and set out the rules for everyone to follow. But a language is of no use unless people understand it, so we can’t all just decide for ourselves what we want to signal with what, because there will be no-one else who can understand what we’re trying to say.
I don’t feel like I’m involved in the queer community enough to add an opinion on what the visual signals used should be. But I do think it’s a great idea, and would like to do what I can to encourage an ongoing discussion. Partially because I would really like a way to tell that cute waitress I’m inclined her way without having to announce it across the cafe, but also partially because I would like a way to express to other queer femmes that I am with them, that I’m here and I feel what they feel.
|Illamasqua Baptise, a home made pink, and Darling Diva Bitch Panties|
So here is my attempt to flag femme. The code itself is still very much under discussion, but the colours I chose were purple, which is generally accepted to signal poly, and a sparkly pink feature nail. Sparkly pink is apparently used to signal either a unicorn (someone who is interested in a relationship with an existing couple) or simply “fuck patriarchy”, and I figured either way I’m happy to signal that. I actually had to mix a pink because I don’t own any – I’m not that kind of femme. But if this thing takes off, I would be happy to invest in one just for this purpose.
What about you? Would you be interested in using this sort of signalling? Do you have a different suggestion? I’d love to hear some discussion about this.