The Best of Times for Chuck Panozzo
BY Winston Gieseke
August 26 2011 3:00 AM ET
When did you tell your brother?
When I was 21. His comment was, “Now I know why you acted the way you did.” And my response was, “OK, what’s your excuse for acting the way you do?”
What was the turning point for you?
In my 30s, I was a professional pallbearer. I went to one of our health clinics [in Chicago] and gave them a check for $5,000 for what I called “this STD that had no cure.” Because [in the early 1980s] there wasn’t a name for it yet. In 1991, I was diagnosed with HIV. And by late ’98, I developed full-blown AIDS. That was a gigantic wake-up call. I was very sick for two years.
How did you get through it?
You have to decide if you’re going to sit in the corner and feel sorry for yourself or if you’re going to just get through what you have to get through. Feeling sorry for yourself is not going to get you better. And all of a sudden, what I thought was going to kill me ended up empowering me.
So you decided to come out?
Yes. In 2001, I made the decision to live my life as an openly gay man with HIV, so I outed myself in front of a thousand people at a Human Rights Campaign dinner in Chicago. It was the most meaningful experience I’ve ever had. I was totally validated and felt very comfortable. I became a better performer onstage, I was inspired to write a book, and I become active in HIV education.
Once you’d made the decision to be open about your sexuality, did anyone advise against it?
I had a few relatives that said, “Do you have to?” I said, “I don’t have to, but I want to.” They said, “We’re afraid for you.” I said, “Don’t be any more afraid for me than I would be afraid for myself.’ The funny thing is — or I should say, the ironic part is — that none of what I feared happened. You may lose a few people on the fringe, but what you gain in self-esteem makes up for that.