For those who don't know, or for those who are just vaguely aware of its existence, "flagging" (aka the handkerchief, hanky or bandana code) is the practice of wearing colored hankies or bandanas on the left or right side of one's person to indicate an interest in certain sexual practices or fetishes, as well as a preference for being top or bottom.
The history of this custom is a bit fuzzy (for one perspective on its origins and color meanings, see here, or roll the dice with Wikipedia), but it's generally agreed upon that flagging's boom era was with gay men around the 1970s. Back in the days of the love that dare not speak its name, a man sporting a hanky could remain inconspicuous to straight people while openly signaling to other gay men that it was safe to make a move. If one wanted to get specific, the left side denoted a top, the right side denoted bottom, and colors such as black, red, grey, navy blue and yellow signified an interest in certain sexual activities, like S&M, fisting, bondage, anal sex and watersports, respectively.
As being gay became more socially acceptable due to more of us coming out and our gain of political power, the need for a covert code waned. Flagging's popularity endured mostly in the gay male leather/kink/fetish community, and slowly spread to other queer members of the kink community. Today, hankies and bandanas are flaunted not just by gay men, but by lesbian femmes, stone butches, genderqueers, trans folks, bois, bears, bootblacks, leather daddies, diesel dykes ... just about anyone under the queer umbrella who has a pervy side.
Being queer and having a pervy side myself, I flag. However, I don't display my colors because I'm looking for a good time. Well, not JUST because I'm looking for a good time. I flag because it's a link to my past. It reminds me of a time when people like me had to be silent. It reminds me that I'm lucky to live when I do, and that despite our ongoing struggle for civil rights I'm still privileged in many ways. I was able to transition from male to female safely and with support from friends and family. I can hold hands with another girl in public without fear. I enjoyed the sexual freedom of not worrying about antiquated sodomy laws. I can smile at my lesbian friends' marriage announcement on my fridge. Flagging reminds me of the queer people who were around before me, the struggles they went through, and the sacrifices they made to give me and my friends a better life.
For me, flagging is a way to connect to my culture, even when there's not another queer in sight. I want to keep our culture alive. I want acceptance, but I don't want to assimilate. Any people's quest for acceptance should never have to tread down the path toward homogeneity. The diversity of world's myriad cultures is a fascinating and beautiful thing. "Celebrate diversity" has become a two-word cliché, but forgo the eye-rolling skepticism and its message becomes powerful and relevant. Those who fought in the past didn't do so for the right to be the same as everyone else; they fought so they could be different and still respected. I want to maintain what makes us unique. A major part of our unique culture has its roots in silence; I don't want to forget that. I want to remember that I should honor my culture by always giving it a voice.
Flagging also is a way I can stay visible. Being traditionally femme-looking and being able to pass, it's easy for me to be mistaken as a heterosexual cis-female. This happens even when I'm in gay bars or other queer spaces. If I'm flagging, however, I have an identifier. It's true that most gay people won't know what the colors signify or what side is what, but they know it means something. They know it's a sign that the person wearing them is queer. Flagging identifies me as a member of the community.
A conversation I had this summer with a leather dyke in her 50s about flagging's place in our culture convinced me to start, and since I made the decision I'm noticing more and more young queers embracing the practice themselves. I hope this trend continues and I hope they're doing it for the same reasons of cultural preservation, visibility and historical deference that I do, but even if they're just looking for a great fuck, that makes me happy, too.
Oh, and P.S.: That picture above doesn't represent how I flag. You'll have to cruise me yourself to see my colors.