How do you know if someone is queer?

By Beth Kennedy

We’re here, we’re queer...but how can we signal this without saying anything?

Queer signalling has been around for decades. In the 70s, LGBTQI+ signalled to one another using a handkerchief system. They would put hankies in their back pocket or their waistbands and each colour signalled a specific sexual preference and specific kinks.

hanky code

There were several variations of the hanky code, so if you’d like to find out more about this slice of LGBTQI+ history, take a look at this great article about flagging (TW: lots of very explicit sexual language). Flagging is not so common now, though a few artists have created an updated version!

Comedian Justin Sayre did a stand up performance on flagging...or more specifically The New Hanky Code. It’s worth a watch if you need a laugh and want to learn a bit of gay history at the same time.

Nowadays, signalling takes many shapes and forms! People want to signal for various reasons including finding friends and partners, as well as showing others that they’re part of the LGBTQI+ family or even just someone safe to talk to in the street.

We’re not saying all LGBTQI+ people wear certain things to signal to others...it’s just there are some clothing and accessory choices that are far more prevalent with LGBTQI+ people. Much of the time, we are signalling without even knowing it!

Femme flagging

If you’re a queer femme woman, how can you let people know without telling people? Some of you may have experienced the “you don’t look gay” thing and it can be very frustrating, especially if you’re looking to meet other likeminded women. Never fear, nails could be the solution! If you’re femme and you’re into manicures then femme flagging using your nails could be just the thing you’re looking for. We think of it as poking the very real issue of femme invisibility right in the eye with a well-manicured finger.

Each finger on each hand has different meanings...and each colour on each finger can represent different things.

As a general rule of thumb (pardon the dreadful pun):

  • Index finger: preference for a specific sexual act or act / particular type of person
  • Middle finger: relationship status/relationship preferences (e.g. monogamous, polyamorous, single and looking, etc)
  • Ring finger: identity (gender or sexuality: e.g. non-binary, trans man, cis woman, lesbian, ace, etc)
  • Little finger: current status (e.g. “It’s complicated”...although it varies)
  • Thumb: Preference for a specific sexual act

nail varnish on hand

Photo by Analia Baggiano

Femme flagging is still a great way to signal to other women who love women that you’re interested. There are so many wonderful blogs about femme flagging - this one mentions hair rosettes as a femme flagging technique (it looks so cool! Especially if you’re into the vintage look). 

Plain White Tees

No, not the band from the 00s, but the clothing champion of many LGBTQI+ people. Plain white tees (PWTs) are particularly a staple for queer women worldwide. Some of TV and film’s biggest LGBTQI+ characters are renowned for their PWTs. Just take Chloe Sevigny’s character Amy in If These Walls Could Talk 2’s or L Word’s Shane or Ruby Rose (and even Ruby Rose wearing a plain white tee on a white t-shirt!). It’s clear PWTs have been, and still remain, a LGBTQI+ wardrobe favourite.

ruby rose on a white t shirt

Tattoos

Those of you into body art may already have several tattoos relating to LGBTQI+, but if you don’t and you’re considering it then the good news is you’re spoiled for choice!

pink triangle tattoo

During the Holocaust gay and bisexual men were labelled with pink triangles and lesbians / bisexual women wore black trinagles  (although the women were referred to as “asocial” rather than lesbians because, erm, Nazi backwardness). Even to this day, some gay men, lesbians and bisexual individuals choose to get triangle tattoos as a symbol of strength, unity and pride.

If that background story is a little too morbid for you, then you could go for a tattoo featuring your favourite lyrics from a well-known LGBTQI+ icon. Tattoos are always a fantastic conversation starter, especially if you’re on the lookout for that special someone.

Lesbians of the 1950s also started a nautical star tattoo trend. In the awesome book Boots of Leather, Slippers of Gold: The History of a Lesbian Community by Elizabeth Lapovsky Kennedy and Madeline D. Davis they say: “The cultural push to be identified as lesbians – or at least different – all the time was so powerful that it generated a new form of identification among the tough bar lesbians: a star tattoo on the top of the wrist, which was usually covered by a watch. This was the first symbol of community identity that did not rely on butch-fem imagery.”

Some intersex people opt for a circle tattoo or, more specifically, a purple tattoo with a yellow background. This stems from the intersex flag, which uses the same colours. According to the flag designer Morgan Carpenter, yellow and purple are “the intersex colour[s], neither blue nor pink “ and the circle is “unbroken and unornamented, symbolising wholeness and completeness, and our potentialities.”

There are countless tattoos you could use for signalling - it’s just a matter of sitting down and working out which one (or two or three or four or more!) is the right choice for you. If you need a bit more inspiration - check out this potted history of LGBTQI+ tattoos.

Carabiners and keys

keys on a chain on a carabina

This one is now an oldie, but in the 70s and 80s, lesbians would clip a carabiner with keys on their trousers. Wearing them on the left side meant “top” and the right “bottom.” Some lesbians will still recognise this today, although the younger generations may not! You could always bring it back into style yourself. Slate wrote an amazing opinion piece on carabiners, lesbians and signalling - make sure you check it out here.

Girl in Red and Sweater Weather

Gen Z has created a few brilliant ways to “signal” they’re queer on social media. Specifically, the eyebrow slit is one of the most popular ways to show that you’re LGBTQI+, just as gay men did when they wore an earring on a certain ear in the 80s.

do you listen to sweater weather

Credit Favorite Fandom 

TikTok in particular has its own mini signalling system. If you ever see comments such as “Do you listen to Sweater Weather?” then it’s highly likely the person is asking if someone is bi without being overly direct (or they just really love the band Sweater Weather ...who wouldn’t!). An alternative is to ask “Do you listen to Girl In Red?” which is code for “Are you a woman attracted to women?”

Of course, this isn’t to say only LGBTQI+ folk listen to Sweater Weather or Girl in Red...it’s just a trend of its time. It’s kind of like asking someone in the 90s if they’ve seen Bound!

It’s important to remember that flagging or signalling isn’t a form of consent. It’s more of a way to show that you’re cool with being approached by potentially compatible people - whether for friendship or something more. So, if you’re interested in trying the art of signalling out - have fun and stay safe!


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