Film Review : Hanky Code: The Movie-Still Flagging in San Francisco

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Sailor Holladay's picture
Long before online dating and cellphone apps like Grindr, queer folks were spotting each other through a language of fashion.

By Sailor Holladay

One of the exciting film based offerings at this year's National Queer Arts Festival is Hanky Code: The Movie, a multi-discipline, multi-sexual interpretation of the hanky code, a practice originally popularized in the 1970's by bisexual and gay men to signal their sexual availabilities and proclivities. Over twenty-six artists are involved in the project, hailing from the Bay Area, New York, Los Angeles, Portland, Chicago, Tennessee, and France.

Some artists, such as MOON RAY RA, an experimental collaboration between CKL Chan and KB Boyce, created their own hanky color, Silver Sequin, which stands for fashion fetish. I got a chance to connect with MOON RAY RA and they spoke of using flagging for QTPOC visibility:

"As queer and trans people of color, we have to search hard to find traces of history and people who resemble our communities. QTPOC have always existed, and so we are used to reading ourselves into larger narratives, creating a presence when we are otherwise invisible. While the hanky code came out of a gay male subculture, we want to re-imagine and encode it for gender diverse, freaky people of color. In Flagging for Fashion glittery red lips fill the screen, followed by pearls and crystal beads in extremely close-up detail. A chubby Asian femme puts plastic wrap on a pair of glittery stilettos, her lover for the evening. Flagging for Fashion provides self-representation in the face of queer Asian femme invisibility and erasure. It says: YES Fat, YES Femme, YES Asian. Yes to owning one's sexuality through camp and play and fantasy!"

I say yes to MOON RAY RA!

I also got an opportunity to ask one of the Hanky Code's curators, Gentry McShane some questions about the project and am excited to share with you what Gentry said:

SH: How did this project come about and how did you decide who to have in the program?

GMS: As a filmmaker who has mostly made short narrative and short documentary work, I have always wanted to produce a longer more fleshed out project or a feature, but that requires a lot of time and finances that can be hard as somebody who has to work to survive in a place like the bay area. I know a lot of other artists and filmmakers who are in the same boat. I have always loved the idea of the hanky code, not that I have ever really used it myself, but I have always viewed it as a mythological representation of gay history. The traditional code and order provides an excellent platform for storytelling and I was really inspired by the idea of weaving together the works of several people across a spectrum of different styles to create one solid program or feature that could potentially tie a larger community together. A project that doesn't belong to just one filmmaker or artist, but belongs to many.

I have been curating screenings with Periwinkle Cinema, a monthly queer experimental film series at Artist's Television Access with Lorin Murphy and Lisa Ganser for the last few years, and after their hugely successful Un(dis)sing Our Abilities program that was in last year's National Queer Arts Festival I wanted to also continue the tradition of promoting and encouraging new work by queer filmmakers and artists.

I began first by putting the word out to other artists and filmmakers whose work i have always enjoyed and valued and then the word was out and other people began expressing interest. I tried to make the project as accessible as possible, at first we had 40 submissions which I knew was too many but I wanted to nurture the completion of all of them, as the deadlines approached many people had too many other things going on and were not able to participate but the group that met the completion deadline is more than I could have ever asked for when conceiving this idea.

SH: With the changes the Bay Area is going through, does the hanky code feel more necessary than in recent decades? Are there still people around who know how to read a hanky? Is this a viable way to meet someone today?

GMS: I think the changes that the Bay Area is going through definitely makes this project more special. Queer artists are being pushed out of this city on the daily, in turn moving into other areas and then pushing out other marginalized communities even further. The whole thing is a mess and a struggle to claim space that can belong to us while being accountable and respectful.

I always explain the hanky code to people who may not know much about it as a myth and legend amongst queer and gay culture. While I am sure there are still people who use it regularly at play parties or fetish events, I highly doubt there is anybody walking around with a gingham print or silver lame hanky hanging out of their back pockets on a regular basis and successfully hooking up based on that.

SH: How does the Hanky Code honor our gay forefathers and foremothers? How does the Hanky Code reinvent the hanky practice, by inviting new interpretations and additional sexual and gender identities into the conversation?

GMS: I believe it honors our gay past by offering a visual representation of the sexual variety and fluidity that can exist within the queer community. So much of queer and trans* history is often about the struggles some of us have faced, the struggles many of us are still facing, including homelessness, disease, poverty, unemployment, estrangement from family, and hate crimes. The focus in the mainstream (gay rights movement) has been the heterosexual institution of marriage which does not give us much room to explore the facets and diversity of our sex lives. Its important to have discussions and projects like this for queers by queers about sex.

The hanky code is often associated with white gay male culture, and may or may not have been birthed out of California's gold rush according to some sources, so I felt it was important when curating a project like this to make sure that the dominant paradigm was being challenged as far as who was participating. Some folks have completely reinterpreted the fetish that belongs to their colors, some folks have made up their own hanky codes applying a new fetish to a color or pattern not found on the traditional code.

SH: Are there connections between this project and Michelle Tea's Valencia film chapters?

I am a huge fan of Michelle's and Radar Productions has always been a very big inspiration to the curating I've done with Periwinkle Cinema over the last few years as far as bringing varying artists to people's attention by presenting their work. I definitely give credit to the Valencia anthology as a great model for executing this type of project, and being a big horror fan I was also very inspired by the magnet releasing anthology series ABC's Of Death.

SH: What are your thoughts on OkCupid, Grindr, Tinder, Facebook, and other forms of online dating and interaction? What does the future hold for meeting like minded people for connecting and sex? Where would you like the future to go?

GMS: I came of age in the time of the internet, in fact, I often wonder what my life would have been like as a young queer without websites like livejournal, makeout club, and myspace. That is where I connected and found myself and my identity. Many of the connections I made at that time I still have and that is not an exclusive experience from other folks in my generation. I have definitely used most of the modern apps personally, and have even had relationships with people I have met on them, however I hope that the future can hold more than people staring at their screens all the time, and I often worry about the way many people in the internet age equate sex and dating with the same level of instant consumption as buying shoes, getting a taxi, or ordering takeout. I would hope that as we progress and navigate this new technology there are more chances to use it as only a platform to take things offline and in to the real world. It is important to view these things as just tools and not expect to be completely fulfilled by them as human beings who need so much more than they can provide.

Hanky Code: The Movie plays at the Center for Sex and Culture on June 17th. Both showings are already sold out, but there will be an encore showing soon in the East Bay soon. To find out when, stay tuned here:

For more information about the Hanky Code program and the participating artists, go here:

The Hanky Code trailer can be viewed here:

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