decoding the secret language of gay 70s san francisco

Photographer Hal Fischer rereleases his cult classic field guide to The Castro's leather daddies, jocks and cowboys.

by Veronica Maldonado
06 November 2015, 4:40pm

Are you a fister, or fistee? In 1970s Castro district San Francisco, the answer was right on the ass - a red handkerchief in the back pocket.

The Hanky Code of the pre-AIDS San Francisco gay community is lovingly documented in Gay Semiotics, the seminal work of photographer Hal Fischer, originally published in 1977 and re-released this month. The book is a cult classic field guide to gay style and expression - explored through photographs of nude men standing in trees, sadomasochistic contraptions, and the correct way to do poppers.

"The whole series and my subsequent work in that period, was about me, and my place in time, and the community I was in," explains Fischer. Photographed, written and exhibited over the course of a few months, Gay Semiotics depicts what Fischer calls, "the ambiguity, the way of being able to code things and communicate, and not have it be misunderstood."

Fischer came to his current hometown, San Francisco, in 1975 to pursue a master's degree in photography, where he slipped into the burgeoning art scene. What started out as a project chronicling the gay community became an art exhibit, turned into a book (the first run of 5,000 copies sold out), and lead to grants from the National Endowment for the Arts as well as international exhibitions.

Fischer's photographs - here's where the "semiotics" part comes in - are accompanied by explanatory text. A picture of a "street fashion forties funk" is dissected element by element: "silk scarf," "sleeveless undershirt" and "gray flannel slacks." Gay Semiotics decodes the visual language of the Castro gay community and traces it back to classical antiquity, Marlon Brando's 1953 film The Wild One, and Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass.

"Your basic gay look, was really adopting certain masculine signifiers, like flannel shirts and jeans," says Fischer. "Out of context, maybe if you wore that in Billings, Montana, it wouldn't necessarily have read as gay. That's because these things were all adopted from mainstream culture"

But he adds, "The leather, though - that's another story."

Gay Semiotics remains an entertaining read throughout, making the academic jargon an easy swallow. A two-page spread, for example, depicts a model in full S&M gear, and the description states: "The aggressor's black, hairy chest is the perfect compliment to the dominance look."

These changes of tone continue through the work, addressing Fischer's ongoing concern: "How do you take something that's complex, and bring it in front of people and explain it not in an overly didactic tone, but allow people to enter it in a really positive way?"

According to Fischer, Gay Semiotics' reprint comes at the perfect time. "In talking to young people, there was so much interest in this, and I think it is a lot about recapturing that history. Within the gay populace, there's also been a lot of nostalgia about the pre-AIDS era, and really how much fun it was in the community of San Francisco."

Younger generations are not the only ones interested; Fischer senses a widespread movement. "One of the things that's been happening in the art world, is a rediscovery of the art of the 70s," he explains. Gay Semiotics is a work firmly planted in its era, a relic of a halcyon age, the idyllic time before the plague.

Noah Michelson, the editor of Huffington Post's Gay Voices, says he "wasn't old enough to catch Gay Semiotics the first time around - and maybe I'm romanticizing it in some ways - but there's something incredibly satisfying about having a secret code that only you and the other members of your secret society know about."

The book highlights an evolving gay culture, where street codes have been traded for phone apps like Grindr and Scruff. "I can recognize other queers like me and I can find and ask for what I want in the bedroom (or kitchen or backseat of an Uber) without relying on a hanky code," Michelson says, "but I can't help but feel that some kind of camaraderie has disappeared. And perhaps the reprinting of Gay Semiotics is the perfect way to remind us of that and to start thinking about what we've lost."

Fischer sees the work as both a snapshot of his community, and a text immortalizing a lost tongue - a vocabulary of place and desire no longer spoken in our time, a code formed out of necessity. "Back in the day, in the 70s, coming onto a straight guy, depending on the circumstances and where you were, could not be a good thing," explains Fischer. "There was some very serious legitimacy in the coding."

The "gay look" has now blown itself into the mainstream. "People you're seeing on the street don't even know that the genesis for a lot of what they wear came out of gay culture," says Fischer.

Gay Semiotics
Gay Semiotics

today is just as likely to serve as a stylist's cheat sheet as it is to end up in a library. Both are just as well. Perhaps needs to be spread the same way its styles have. Otherwise, entire age groups won't know their button-up jeans are pretty damn gay. More importantly, how else will we remember a vibrant generation we could well have lost?

Despite the street style diffusion, is the gay semiotic still surviving in Castro? "It's completely gone now. I can't even tell who's gay anymore," remarks Fischer. "This was all before images could be shot and widely circulated. It's not only a different way of how a subculture existed then, but it's a different [mode] of communication. It's so different now."


Text Veronica Maldonado
Photography Hal Fischer

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