Excerpted from The Advocate, May 14, 2002
During Styx’s prime in the 1970s, I was one of those closeted, clandestine type of guys. We would tour like crazy, and my initiation into the gay scene was stifled by the fact that I wasn’t out publicly. When I was on the road with Styx—I’m the bass player—sometimes I would separate from the band and I’d find a bar. That was it.
Being so involved in music had become my way of living with the secret I kept. My sexual life was never a topic of discussion among the band. We had too many other things to focus on besides our personal sexual lives. When I was 20, I told my brother, John (who became a drummer for Styx; he died in 1996), and my sister. My sister thought it was just “a phase”; John just thought, Well, that’s just Chuck. Again, my sexual orientation was never a big focus of discussion, even with family.
A few people have asked, “What would’ve happened if you had come out with the band 20 years ago?” And I say, “Well, I probably would have had to quit.” Nowadays Tommy Shaw, guitarist and lead singer for Styx, is my biggest supporter, but at the time, I found the rock-and-roll world to be a very machismo-based business, and I wasn’t about to give up my career. Not then.
It’s tough to have to compromise like that, and I wish now that I had come out sooner. If it didn’t work within the context of the band, I think I would’ve fulfilled some other aspect of my life. I gave up my personal life for my music, but now I don’t have to do that anymore. I know a couple of younger gay guys who are musicians who are facing that challenge today. That’s why I’m trying to help out young openly gay artists like Dylan Rice, with whom I recently worked on a demo tape.
When I decided to come out publicly, I wanted to do it in a way that I thought would be cool. So I outed myself at a Human Rights Campaign dinner in Chicago last July. The only issue I had with coming out was that I thought, Well, who cares if Chuck Panozzo comes out and says he’s gay? But I wanted to say that I am HIV-positive. It was important for me to say that if you’re at high risk for HIV—straight or gay—you should get tested, because there are meds out there that can really make a difference now.
When I was diagnosed HIV-positive in 1991, I asked my doctor, “What can I do? How long will I live?” She said, “I don’t know.” Everything was “I don’t know.” I wasn’t told what my viral load was, I didn’t know what my T-cell count was. None of this was explained to me. I left the doctor’s office thinking, I’m just going to continue on until I get sick.
And that’s what I did—until Styx started working on the album Brave New World in 1998. I went to all the rehearsals, but I started to get sick. The band knew something was going on—I’d lost 40 pounds—so I told them my HIV status. When the tour for the record started, I wasn’t involved. Tommy Shaw said that the last time he saw me, before the tour, he didn’t think he was ever going to see me again.
When I was thinking about coming out publicly, some people said, “What do you think the fans will think?” I said, “This is my life! I sacrificed a lot for Styx! It’s a great band, but I can’t sacrifice everything anymore.” And when I did come out, the fans embraced me.
When I was diagnosed 10 years ago, there was a lot of suffering in the gay community. Many people I knew died prematurely. It was a devastating time for all of us, a shameful period in our history. A whole segment of America was shunned because politics and religion got involved. That’s an outrage. As spokesman for HRC’s Coming Out Project, I have made this commitment: If we don’t speak up, if we’re not our own voices, who’s going to be? We have an obligation as men and women to let people know we are here, contributing to the fabric of American society.
I can’t go through my life like a lot of artists and movie stars who, at the end of their lives, have their obituaries written by someone else. I want to write my obituary while I’m alive. This is who I am now.
As told to Steve Gdula.