Saturday, May 3, 2008

The Code Quilt - The Key To It All

Thanks to Nellie, I have pictures!  So, now I really have no excuse for not providing all of the information that i keep saying I want to provide.  So here goes!  

My hope is that this information, all the research and experimentation, will not only allow viewers to more fully understand our piece, but will open up to them the possibility of participating in the history.  Please, take this knowledge and use it in the world whether that means just being more knowledgeable about the hankies you see everyday, or by going a step further and creating a quilt of your very own sexual identity!

The Underground Rail Road Quilt Code:

This code was used by slaves and other members of the Underground Railroad to pass information and messages that included many details including when to leave, what to bring, in which direction to travel and even the location of specific safehouses.  According to Jaqueline L. Tobin and Raymond G. Dobard, (the authors of the book Hidden In Plain View:  A Secret Story of Quilts and the Underground Railroad) each quilt was displayed in a specific order leading up to the exact moment of escape.  In our quilt, Nellie and I have adapted the original translations of the quilt patterns to better represent queer identities.  
Original Meaning:  
Gather the tools (actual and emotional) that will be necessary for the journey ahead.  
Mental tools included cunning, alertness, an ability to discern motives of strangers and knowledge.  
Could also refer to a key figure in their community.

New Meaning:  
Tools, being dykey or handyman-esque.  
Dildos, sex toys or "tools".
Emotional tools for self and social acceptance.
An Out celebrity.

Original Meaning:
Costumes:  dress up so that you blend in.  Especially with bonnets to hide your face from strangers.
Also referred to time and the "4 moments in the sun" (morning, midday, evening, night) from African Culture.  Indicates a need to manage time efficiently and effectively.

New Meaning:
Gender-bending clothes and "passing" in mainstream culture.
Drag or costume.

Original Meaning:
Follow the actual tracks of a bear through the woods.
Known in Philadelphia as the "hand of friendship" and in Long Island, New York as "Duck's Foot in the Mud."

New Meaning:
Gay male identity: a Bear.
Other historical  queer identities or traditional role combinations:  butch/femme, etc.

Original Meaning:
Follow the actual geese.
Often, one set of triangles was highlighted through the use of different fabric to indicate the suggested direction of travel: North, South, East or West.

New Meanings:
A baby-bear or baby-dyke who needs direction from the community.
Moving to a new neighborhood that is more tolerant.
A desire to find one's own community or community in general.

Original Meaning:
Cleveland, Ohio.

New Meaning:
Changing directions or locations.
"Coming out."
Transitioning genders.

Original Meaning:
Vary the direction of travel in order to throw off followers:  use such tactics as back-tacking, walking through bodies of water, etc.

New Meaning:
Bar Culture, drinking alcohol, etc.

Original Meaning:
Indicated places to hide along the journey:  both slaves cabins and safe-houses.

New Meaning:
Being two-faced or contradictory (aka: Log Cabin Republican, etc.)

Original Meaning:
Follow the North Star.
Consistency in travel and spirits.

New Meaning:
Consistency of character.
Gold Star Lesbian (a lesbian who has never had sex with a man.)
A theater star or fan.

Original Meaning:
Related to the Bow-Ties square in that it also referred to costume and strategic dress.
Referred to an actual person who would aid slaves.

New Meaning:
Leading or leaders in the community.

Original Meaning:
Alerted slaves to pack provisions as if packing a wagon (and sometimes for wagon travel).
Bring anything necessary for survival.

New Meaning:
"Uhauling" or a couple moving in together.

For more in depth analysis on the history of the quilt code I highly recommend reading Hidden in Plain View.  Although it has been criticized for shoddy writing (yeah... even I could spot some mistakes) and the history itself has been called into question due to it's unprovablilty (in the eyes of patriarchal, canonized historical terms) I thoroughly enjoyed it.  I thought that it was reasonably well argued/ proven and I was, clearly, thoroughly fascinated by the history.

The Gay Hanky Code:

Finding reliable, historical information on the hanky code was even harder than finding research on the quilt code!  There are almost no official records of such a code ever being used except for word of mouth (aka subculture history) and literary/media references.  But, luckily enough, there are a plethora of websites devoted to the minutia of the hanky code.  Except for a single invention, we had no need to alter the meanings of the color symbolism.  With hankies, whether an individual is a sexual "top" or "bottom" is indicated by which back pocket the hankie is displayed in.  In our quilt, each block received a black or white border, the white indicating a "bottom" and the black indicating a "top."  Here are the other colors we used in the quilts and their meanings.

Lavender:  Drag kings or queens
Navy:  Sex
Black:  Heavy S/M
Red:  Fisting
Maroon:  Two-handed Fisting
Purple:  Piercing
Cobalt:  Cops
Hunter Green:  Daddy (top)/ Orphan (bottom)
Lime Green:  Buy me dinner
Green:  Hooker
Robin's Egg Blue:  Likes to 69
Orange:  Up for anything
White:  Jerking off
Grey:  Bondage
Light Pink:  Dildo
Tan:  Smokes cigars
Bright Pink:  Tit torture/ Spanking
Light Blue:  Oral sex
Peach:  Bear
Yellow:  Urine
Brown:  Feces
 Teal:  Cock/Ball torture
Mint:  Trans (we made this one up.)

For more information on the Hanky Code I honestly suggest you google "Gay Hanky Code."  You'll find a ton of information and quite a few color charts.

Reading the Quilt:

As we were planning the quilt, we assigned a different identity to each square, using the information from the quilt pattern and the different colors to indicate preference and individuality.  But reading the quilt isn't as easy as simply fitting the pieces together.  For those of you who have read Philip Pullman's The Golden Compass, we sort of associate the reading of the quilt with the reading of the Alietheometer:  the symbols can mean slightly different things within their context.  For example:  the quilt square in the top right corner of the photo above is a Monkey Wrench pattern made with mint and cobalt hankies.  We took this square to mean:  "I'm a trans-cop with the tools necessary to fighting for acceptance against the grain of society."

Hopefully, this information has provided you with a little more insight and a little more agency in reading our quilt.  I hope you enjoy both the piece and the puzzle.  I would love to see your comments, suggestions, questions or anything:  especially if you decide to make your own quilt!  Thanks so much for taking the time to slog through this blog in the search of knowledge and art!


Anonymous said...


Carrie Ann said...

Great work! The quilt looks great. And I learned a few things that really help....

you're amazing!