“No matter what your identity is, what you say and do is political. … It’s just a matter of what kind of politics are you trying to advance. What kind of political values are you leading with?”
It wasn’t until Patty Ahn was 23 years old that they came out to themself.
Patty, who uses the pronouns “they” and “them,” was aware the news wouldn’t sit well with their parents because of the culture in Korean communities, reflective of the particularly conservative sect of Christianity many practice. So, they spent most of high school and college poking their head out and in of the proverbial closet until their dad passed away, which is when Patty finally came out to their mom and sisters. They said they aren’t sure if they would’ve come out if he were still alive today. As with many Korean households, there was some domestic violence in their early childhood, which would’ve made this feat especially difficult.
It’s these kinds of experiences in which Patty has existed in the margins — growing up in America as a woman of color but within Korean culture, as a queer person who presents as queer — that have shaped their perspective as a scholar and media activist.
With a Ph.D in critical studies from the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts, Patty’s research and teachings lie in the intersection of media, gender and race studies. In fact, it was actually while watching Korean documentaries that Patty learned the power of cinema. They recalled how the films were able to fill in the blanks of their identity that had been left unanswered and realized then the power of media as an instrument of influence.
In recent years, K-pop has been a particular interest for Patty, who uses the musical genre as a vehicle for thinking about South Korea’s political history. Like the rest of Korea’s financial system, the K-pop industry is dominated by big conglomerates that treat idol groups like export products. It’s an interesting window into how the country’s culture and economy work. At the same time, Patty looks to make connections that may not be obvious to others, especially given the impact the genre has on such a large and young audience.
One such example of this is their current project Black/Korea, for which they were awarded a Hellman Fellowship in 2018. Black/Korea is a documentary that discusses how K-pop was born of the black-Korean music exchange that took place on American military bases in 1950s Korea. Here, Patty dives into the rarely discussed relationship between K-pop and American black music and culture.
These kinds of connections are ones most people may not see, but that Patty is able to make. Having been “on the outside” with a fragmented story of themself has allowed them to always ask questions — especially when certain narratives feel too simplistic. They ask, “Why are these stories getting repeated over and over again. Who does it serve? Is it used to silence other stories?”
Patty has learned that following these questions usually leads to discovering important but untold stories, as was the case when Patty went out to Standing Rock Protests, where indigenous and environmental activists opposed the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline, to produce video pieces for Buzzfeed. While there, they were also part of a production team that created a documentary on Native American women activists in their 70s who had been fighting for their rights for decades.
For Patty, activism isn’t always about doing the obvious. Their research is always intentionally shaped toward an activist goal, and a vision of the future where everyone’s lives are valued and basic rights are met. “No matter what your identity is, what you say and do is political. It has political impact,” Patty said. “It’s just a matter of what kind of politics are you trying to advance. What kind of political values are you leading with?”