Signs and Symbols

This month’s article is about signs and symbols used within the gay, leather and BDSM communities. The leather community, in the early days, developed various different subtle signs and symbols so they would know and recognize each other. This was done because even within the gay community the Leathermen were perceived as kinky and perverted folks and we had to have a way to recognize each other. In later years, as the Leathermen became more accepted many of these signs and symbols were used by the general gay and straight communities.

Various words were used to indicate vari­ous things. The question “Do you play the Saxophone or the Mandolin?” would be used to ask “Are you a sadist or a masochist?” Saxo­phone = S = sadist. Mandolin = M = masoch­ist. Another phrase was “Would you like to go get a cup of coffee?” which would mean “Would you like to go and have sex”?

When Leathermen would gather at a warehouse or private venue, there were code words that were used at the door in order to gain access to the gathering. When Leather bars first came on the scene, code words were used to gain access to the dungeon area (private secluded area of the bar. These were usually back rooms or basements). This is where the sex went on, and it was not open to the general public. The code words prevented the police from accessing these areas. When you would go to a Leather club, you would present the code word to the bartender and he would take you to the door that led to the private area.


Wearing keys would mean you were cruis­ing. The keys would be attached to the side belt loop. Keys on the left indicated you were a top and keys on the right would indi­cate you were a bottom. Keys worn out of the pocket (hanging) would mean you were cruising. Keys attached to the belt loop but tucked in the pocket would mean you were not actively cruising. During the 70’s and 80’s the key code was used frequently within the general gay population, but became lost starting in the 90’s. Nowadays, not very many people use the key code, although it is still somewhat used in the Leather community.

The hanky code originated in the west­ern United States during the Gold Rush and early logging days. Because women were so scarce, at group socials, men would have to dance with each other. The follower would tie a hanky to his right leg just above the knee to indicate he was the follower during the dance. The Leather community took this one step further. They would tuck a hanky into the left pocket to indicate if they were a Dominant or into the right pocket for a submissive. Various different colors were used to indicate what type of play you were interested in. 

    The hanky code has grown over the years and now has a wide variety to indicate all sorts of different likes and fetishes. In the early days of the Leather com­munity, the hanky was tucked. The center of the hanky would be tucked into the back pocket with all four corners sticking out. Nowadays, the hanky is neatly folded and stuck in the back pocket. In the 70’s and 80’s the hanky code was widely used by the general gay public. When I first went to the bars, you never went out without a hanky in your pocket.

Button-Fly Jeans:
In the early days, 501 jeans were the only type of jeans that were worn. (Tight jeans, not loose fitting.) This was because 501s had a button fly. When you were cruising, you would leave the bottom button undone to indicate you were looking for sex. The more buttons that were undone, the more you were looking. So that people would notice, you would leave it unbuttoned, but would also have the button sticking out to the side. Unbuttoned fly’s lost appeal starting in the 90’s and when loose fitting jeans became fashionable.

Hanging Left or Right:
Because the jeans were so tight, it was important that you didn’t wear underwear. This way, your family jewels would hang down within the pants. You would hang everything left or right. Left to indicate you were a top, right to indicate you were a bottom. This way, when the two (top and bottom) would hold each other close, the jewels would rub against each other.

Epaulet Rings:
When the Leather community was in its infancy, Leathermen would wear rings on the epaulets of their leather jackets. Unfor­tunately these meanings have been lost over time. It could have had meaning similar to the ropes rings worn on epaulets in the military. Or they could mean that the person wearing them is into heavy bondage and SM. Or they could even mean that the person is an official in a motorcycle club. Today, it is very uncom­mon to see epaulet rings. If they are worn, it’s more of a fashion statement rather than any certain meaning.

Arm Bands:
Arm bands are worn by Leathermen to indi­cate whether or not they are a Dominant or submissive. Dominant would wear the band on the left arm, subs wear on the right. Today, you see people wearing them on both arms. This basically has no meaning. To some it is indicating a Dominant, but among old tradition followers the wearer is perceived as a switch-hitter.

Ear Piercing:
30 years ago, ear piercing indicated if you were gay or straight. Depending on which side determined whether you were gay or straight. The only problem was, on one coast, it meant one thing, and the other coast is meant the opposite. So if you pierced your ear on the east coast to indicate you were straight, on the west coast it would mean you were gay. Luckily the gay/straight indications quickly faded and today there is no meaning for pierced ears.


From what I have been able to find, the eagle indicates higher status within that community. Eagle symbols have been used by every branch of the military and by almost every country government. The eagle is an emblem representing power. It indicates those in authority. Within the Leather community, the meaning of the eagle has been lost. I am unable to find anyone or any reference to the eagle that is worn on the biker caps. From what I see about the military and the government use, I would suspect that the eagle represented status and authority in the community. We will probably never know.

The lambda symbol is mainly used within the general LGBT community. Generally it’s the lower case symbol that is used. It is the 11th character of the Greek alphabet. It is said to signify unity under oppres­sion, explaining its use as an LGBT symbol. In 1970, the Greek letter lambda (λ) was selected to symbolize the Gay Activists Alliance’s campaign for gay liberation. Four years later, the Interna­tional Gay Rights Congress in Edinburgh, Scotland, chose the same symbol to repre­sent lesbian and gay rights. As a result, the lambda has become internationally known. It is traditional for the lambda to be shown in lavender, a color which, like pink, is often associated with homosexuality.

One of the oldest symbols is the pink triangle, which originated from the Nazi concentration camp badges that homosexu­als were required to wear on their clothing. For this reason, the pink triangle is used both as an identification symbol and as a memento to remind both its wearers and the general public of the atrocities that gays suffered under Nazi persecutors.

The black triangle was used to mark les­bians, prostitutes or women who used birth control (among others) in Nazi concentra­tion camps. The Nazis compelled “unde­sirable” people, including lesbians, to wear the inverted Black Triangle. Modern-day lesbians have claimed this symbol for them­selves.

BDSM Triskelion (or Triskele):
This symbol was cre­ated after 1995 dis­cussions on an AOL message board, when user Quagmyr proposed a design for a BDSM emblem, originally inspired by the Roissy ring described in the Story of O (although he later decided the Roissy design had spirals rather than “teardrops”). In fact the Triskelion is an ancient symbol used by many cultures, including Orien­tal variants with Yin-Yang style dots or eyes. The rims and spokes are of a color indicating metal. The rims and spokes are of uniform width with the arms rotating clockwise. The inner fields are black. The holes in the fields are truly holes and not dots. l

28-Feb-18 14

Marcia McCoy, Ph.D.

More Leather Life

  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 4
  • 5


Leather Life