Adventures in Queer Nightlife With My College Professor

Victor P Corona
Victor P. Corona (Photography: Bharti Tiwari)

I never thought I’d be sitting next to my sociology professor while a masked burlesque performer stood naked, dressing herself with the bits of clothing she pulled from her body’s orifices. But being a student of Victor Corona was an adventure that soaked me in vodka, covered me in shit—I’ll explain—and educated me on gender, nightlife, and spectacle in ways that I never imagined.

Today, Corona, a 35-year-old Mexican immigrant who once lived illegally in the U.S., teaches culture and gender courses at New York University. After studying sociology at Yale and earning his Ph.D. at Columbia, he began a six-year journey into downtown Manhattan’s art, performance, and nightlife scenes, leading to his first book, Night Class: A Downtown Memoir, published this summer. In addition to Barnes & Noble calling the book one of the “12 Must-Read Indie Books Coming This Summer,” Night Class was mentioned in The New Yorker and Page Six and included in actress Emma Roberts’s book club.

Far, far away from his dusty Mexican hometown, Corona’s book launch was appropriately held at the On Top summer party at The Standard in Manhattan’s Meatpacking District, hosted by New York nightlife queen Susanne Bartsch. Like Corona’s favorite kind of party, the crowd was mixed. After making our way past the velvet rope, my friend Kim and I tried to absorb the scene at his launch party: drunk socialites and artsy twenty-somethings dancing around the edge of the infamous rooftop jacuzzi, all of us caught up in the steamy smell of chlorine, the flash of strobe lights and the glow of Manhattan’s skyline. It was the visceral culmination of Corona’s book—lights and liquor, sequins and sweat, drag queens and drama.

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Night Class: A Downtown Memoir by Victor P. Corona

But before all that, on my very first day as his student, Corona wore a black polo and thick-rimmed glasses. I suspected he was queer but his academic, buttoned-up demeanor kept it a riddle. He lectured passionately on gender roles, a topic that was new territory for sheltered Long Island frat bros at Hofstra University. This was refreshing, especially since I had just come from a religion class where the professor refused to honor a student’s they/them pronouns. But Corona had a very distinct presence in the classroom. When he liked what a student had to say, he’d nod and say, “Extrreeeemmmelyyyy interesting.” Sometimes other students didn’t quite know how to deal with him. One mysteriously hot girl in my class even told him, right in the middle of class, that his aura expanded throughout the room when he lectured.

For me, the nightlife unit stuck out the most. I was practically leaping out of my seat as he clicked through a PowerPoint filled with outlandishly dressed club kids. I appreciated Corona’s role as my professor, but I was also dying to be his friend and visit one of the clubs he lectured about. What does Corona do when uppity students like me seek him out for late-night office hours at a bouncing nightclub? When I caught him en route to the Social Movements class he’s teaching at NYU this fall, he explained, “After the semester, once I’m no longer responsible for giving a grade, some students will seek me out to go out to a club. It’s really fun to see them make their way in and experience it all first-hand.”

Luckily, I was invited out with him after the semester ended. Around midnight on a Friday, I stepped out of a cab to meet Corona in front of an unmarked building on a crowded downtown Manhattan street. I was pleasantly surprised to see him dressed in all black and smears of blue glitter sparkling on his face. We were on our way to The Box, which is, in short, insane. Corona’s favorite club is a delicious mindfuck of engrossing performance art, Amanda Lepore and wealthy stockbrokers, champagne and popcorn. And lots of shit, usually pouring out of the ass of the headliner dressed as Anna Wintour, a rabbi, or a sex worker. Go and see for yourself.

One night, as Corona and I clinked shot glasses that had just been squirted into by a performer who had manically fingered her vagina, I felt grateful to have accessed the private, whimsical world of someone who taught me in a brightly lit classroom. The admittance to the exclusive nightclub and the exposure to shocking performance art was something I craved, but even more valuable was feeling connected to someone in academia who wasn’t like my other professors. His former Columbia University student Casey Gilfoil shared a similar sentiment: “I always appreciated how Victor pushed back on ivory tower ideals.”

But Corona’s tell-all chapter about The Box in Night Class was not without its personal costs. Box co-founder Simon Hammerstein of the Hammerstein clan, practically American theatrical royalty, banished him from the venue that Corona lovingly documented. He accepts the ban and still hangs out with friends who work there. Corona told me, “Most of the managers and performers liked the book, but Simon called me, cursed me out and told me that I couldn’t come back. I wish everyone at The Box all the best and I hope that Simon eventually finds some peace with himself. Go on a Thursday—Amanda Lepore’s night!”

Though accepting of marginalized identities, clubland is not without its shade, as shown by a professor’s banishment from The Box. Though nightlife often provides a tremendous sense of community and belonging, there is social hierarchy and elitism entrenched throughout its culture.

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Photography: Victor P. Corona

In nightlife, queer people seek out chosen families and safe spaces to create, dance, mobilize and connect. Night Class is both a celebration of this possibility and a critique of the ways in which we do this. Corona leaves out no hard truth about the reality of gay spaces—from affirming unity to utter discrimination, from groundbreaking innovation to the same old tedious drama. Corona remarked, “I think that a lot of people are looking to nightlife and other queer spaces for the resistance to Trump. But before we can really do that, we need to confront the extraordinary elitism that exists in the gay community. I largely avoid gay parties because of their self-segregation, cattiness and total disdain for people who are not white muscle queens or white twinks. To this day, it’s in a mixed space where I feel the most comfortable.”

These were the kinds of controversial gray areas that Corona’s courses explored. But although what we discussed was engaging and fun, Corona did not let students screw around. His former NYU student Bharti Tiwari told me, “As a professor, Victor brought a no-nonsense energy to class.” While examining modern cultural artifacts like Beyoncé, Sex and the City, and Tinder, Corona’s classes also required serious academic readings. He pushed his students to think beyond their point of view—without hesitating to call them out if they weren’t trying. Gilfoil remembered, “He was always poised at his podium but had no qualms about reading you to pieces. Mid-semester oral presentations were every undergrad’s fear because he saw through attempts to bullshit. But that motivated me because I knew that for those of us who cared about the course—and honestly how could you not when you get to have critical conversations on sexuality, social media, and Lady Gaga?—he wanted to help us be our best selves.”

At NYU Victor was recently promoted to a post overseeing sociology and anthropology curriculum. Why move a professor of nightlife into an administrative slot? “I think that the administrators at NYU recognize that I really try to add value to the classroom experience,” Corona told me. “I’m not there to entertain, but to give students a way to make sense of the really chaotic world that we live in.”

Like Gilfoil, many creative students were drawn to Corona. Though not every student is as riveted by him as others, I truly believe that everyone leaves his classroom with a different take on the social world around them. “I want my teaching to speak to the way students live their everyday lives,” Corona explained, “Both in terms of the pop culture they consume and the challenges they face as young people in this hypermodern world.” He created an environment that fostered difficult conversations but still felt safe. According to Gilfoil, “He was all tea and no shade.”

Back at The Standard, Corona’s book launch seemed to approximate a genuine mix. Waiting for my ex-professor to arrive, I sipped my vodka and felt the techno beats vibrating in my chest. Eventually Corona stomped in, dressed all in black once again, but with plastic lace wrapped across his face. To Corona’s surprise, a ghost of his clubland past arrived too. Sighing, Corona told me, “In the book, I talk about a boy I call F who totally broke my heart while I was researching Night Class. I was shocked when he showed up at my book launch and apologized. I signed his book and told him that I was at peace with what happened. I don’t expect to talk to him again.”

I missed Corona’s unexpected reunion with his “bad romance,” but I did watch him engage in giddy banter with the night’s hosts, other ex-students, and club kids in towering platform shoes. I felt a sense of pride to have been in his classroom just a few years prior.

Corona’s close friend Ava Glasscott, a model and trans advocate, was there too. They met at On Top years before and she ended up speaking at one of his Columbia classes. Thinking back to the humid July night, she remembers, “It was hot. Everyone’s make-up was melting, except Victor’s. Whatever he put on, it remained untouched.” Unsurprisingly, Corona’s party achieved a mix of hormones and scents, but also of classes, races, genders, and sexualities. Inside, the bass thumped louder and the sweaty bodies danced closer. I could feel the electricity in the air and remembered Corona’s words at the end of chapter six in Night Class, “This place, this night, I thought, someday people will be nostalgic for tonight.”

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