Part One: HIV and the Road to Acceptance

Chuck Panozzo is probably most noted for being the bassist for the rock band Styx, which has had mega hits since the 1970s. What many may not realize is his long battle with HIV and all the stigmas that come along with it.

“I’m an Italian Catholic from Chicago,” Panozzo told The Independent. “There aren’t supposed to be any gay Italians.” It was this type of macho thinking that caused him to ignore the fact that he was getting sick, nearly leading to his death.

It wasn’t until 1991, after taking a seven year hiatus, that he took the HIV test, confirming what he already suspected. “I wasn’t shocked,” he said. “I was around during the onset (back when it didn’t even have a name) and was in complete denial.”

Even after testing positive, he didn’t publicly acknowledge his situation. “I bought into the system and believed what they were saying,” he said. “I couldn’t see the man in the mirror and even ignored the Kaposi’s Sarcoma lessions on my skin.” He was a 5’9” man that had shrunk to 130 pounds.

“Our government wasn’t all that concerned about it,” he said. “Who cares if gays are dying. The virus was politicized and religicized to death and it wasn’t looked at as a medical problem. That was the kind of attitude we were dealing with and had to overcome.”

Furthermore, he was watching people around him taking large doses of AZT, the first drug to become widely available to fight the disease. “Instead of people getting better, they were getting sicker, hastening their death,” Panozzo said. That was why he decided to wait it out. “It was really stupid thinking,” he admits. “But, I hoped that I could wait and hope that better medication would become available.”

His world changed in the mid-90s after the death of his twin. “After that, a good friend of mine was in the hospital and I asked if he had gotten an HIV test,” he said. “He was more concerned with his insurance, his job and what people would think rather than his own life.” It was after his friend’s death that Panozzo knew that things had to change.

“I knew I didn’t want to have to deal with doctors that didn’t understand me,” he said. “So I sought out information from gay newspapers and found a place in the Chicago area that specialized in gay men’s health.” The first obstacle he overcame was the psychological aspects that made him feel guilty. “I finally realized that it’s just a disease that I caught, which allowed me to overcome all the crap I’d been fed by religion and the government.”

Once he was physically and psychologically prepared, he used his celebrity status to make a difference. “I knew that something had to be done so that more people could face the facts and get treatment,” he said. “After watching my good friend die — he was like a brother to me — I didn’t want other people to fall through the cracks.”

In 2001, he became the official spokesman for the Human Rights Campaign’s “National Coming Out Day.” Not only coming out to the world as a gay man, but a gay man with HIV. “With teaming up with the HRC I can help our community overcome hate and violence and do whatever I can to make this a better world for everyone,” he said. “We have to remember that it’s not all about us and the now, we have to help build the foundation for the next generation.”

Panozzo still plays with Styx (and is currently recording a new CD with them in Chicago) and other headlining acts. While not on the road or in the studio he relaxes with his partner in their South Florida home.

Panozzo is also a regular reader of The Independent. “People need a reliable source of information, especially the gay community,” he said. “The Independent is very well done and a great source for the community.”

Be sure to read part two of this story in the next issue of The Independent on stands and the Internet on April 7 where Panozzo discusses social ills within the gay community, including drugs and alcohol.
Styx Rocker Reflects on Coming Out, HIV
Chuck Panozzo Talks About Sex, Drugs and Community Responsibility
By Michael James
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