Over the course of Styx’s 38-year career, the group sold more than
30 million albums worldwide. We caught up with the band’s cofounder and
original bassist, Chuck Panozzo, a former high school teacher and an
AIDS survivor who’s been campaigning for HIV awareness and gay rights
since 2001. Despite having just wrapped a U.S. tour and gearing up for
the release of Regeneration: Volume 2, Panozzo had enough time on his hands to give us his thoughts on gay rockers, the power of coming out, and male groupies.
The Advocate: You’ve said that your sexuality was never a topic of conversation among the members of Styx. Does that mean they weren’t aware that you were gay?
Chuck Panozzo: I had a twin brother [drummer John Panozzo], and we started this little band when we were 12 years old. Dennis [DeYoung, Styx lead singer] was our neighbor. I was fairly asexual as a young kid and kind of intimidated. I grew up in a neighborhood full of Italian Catholics, which was a lot different in the ’60s than it is in the year 2011. If you said too much or got too involved in your sexuality, you would run the risk of being slammed down or made fun of, so I just kept quiet and concentrated on what I knew, which was music and trying to live the American dream in my own way. Of course, I knew I was attracted to other guys but I didn’t know how to express it — and if you did on the south side of Chicago, believe me, they would beat the hell out of you.
What did music give you as a kid?
In high school [our band] started playing mixers, so all of a sudden I didn’t worry about being an athlete or being a common kid who got picked on. Being a musician kind of elevated my status. It set me apart. Because of music I didn’t have to deal with a lot of harassing or bullying. It was kind of a refuge for me — a safety zone.
When did you begin exploring your sexuality?
In the ’70s when we started becoming famous, I liked the freedom of being on the road, and occasionally I would venture out to find a bar here or there and try to have what I thought was fun or exploration. But it wasn’t until I moved out of my [parents’] house and moved downtown into the city of Chicago that I was able to get my first taste of what it was like to experience myself as a gay person. But it was always very clandestine.
You were never recognized?
No one ever brought the subject up. If anyone I met asked me “What do you do?” and I told them I was a musician, they’d ask if I was a church organist. If I told them I was in a rock band, they would kind of gasp and walk away. Back then it was my presumption that there were no gay guys who liked rock and roll except for me. But, you know, these things change in time.
Sounds like you were able to remain fairly anonymous.
My big fear at that time was coming out and having the fans turn on Styx. It certainly wouldn’t be fair to the others. I knew if anyone found out, I would have to leave the band. It really wasn’t until later on, when the band regrouped in the ’90s, that I felt angry about being onstage and not being myself. I realized you can’t hide these things forever. They’ll eat you up.
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.
Since then you’ve been active in AIDS charities and gay rights causes.
Yes, I did some benefits for the Human Rights Campaign and I was asked to be part of the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation. My partner and I did a painting, which was sold. He’s a portrait artist and I’m an artist. Well, I used to teach art — I’m hardly an artist. [Laughs] But we did it. The painting sold for a thousand dollars. Locally here in Florida, we do a thing called the Smart Ride [TheSmartRide.org], which is a bicycle ride from Miami down to Key West. I was very involved in that last year. I also performed at one of our local clubs and auctioned off guitars. I’m more than happy to give my time in service. I feel an obligation to do that. I got a second chance in life.
As an activist, what would you say to young, 20-something gay men who think it’s no longer important to practice safe sex because the only consequence of HIV is that you have to take a pill every day for the rest of your life?
What a lot of these younger people don’t realize is the ramifications the medication will have on them, physically and financially. If you lose your job or you don’t have medical insurance, who’s going to pay for that pill?
You did a year in the seminary. How do you feel about politicians who use religion as an excuse for passing antigay legislation?
Anybody who wraps themselves around the Bible or the Constitution to condemn the way we live is ridiculous to me. I hate to sound like a geezer, but I’m part of the Harvey Milk generation. I was in a couple of bars that were raided, and while I wasn’t teaching at the time, I remember when they [tried to oust] gay teachers in California. I was appalled. I took four extra years of schooling in order to teach children, and now I’m going to be clumped into a group of pedophiles? What are they thinking? And as far as the Catholic Church goes, I have three words for them: “Shame on you.” I don’t hate Catholicism, but I dislike their inability to tell the truth and the way they pass these pedophile priests from church to church. That kind of stuff infuriates me because it’s based on lying. If you believe in the church, it’s supposed to be about love and truth. And if it’s anything but love, what kind of a church is it?
Last question: Is there such a thing as male groupies for men?
Yeah, I have a few. [Laughs] There are a few guys that I know, but I’m beyond the stage of ... I’ll meet them after the show. It’s just a real nice and polite thing.
Read more about Chuck at ChuckPanozzo.com.