From the age of five, I always knew I was different from most of the boys in my neighborhood. I was a very sensitive person, and there were not many boys that liked to sit around and draw like I did. I recall one day when I was seven, and had a broken leg, we had a fire drill at school, and a guy in the 8th grade had to help me out. This was when I really realized my same sex attraction. I recall afterwards thinking, I wanted to know when the next fire drill was going to be. However, in that day, you did not talk about things like being gay. The word gay was not used...gay people were referred to as "homosexuals", or worst of all "queer". There were no role models for a gay child to follow, so music became an escape, something to get lost in and not have to face who I really was.
In high school I became even more involved in music. We had been playing weddings since we were 12. Thanks to "word of mouth" we had gotten work around the area. We were paid $15.00 each to perform what we called "standard tunes". We were a dance band, and we were now ready to venture out and play rock-n-roll. Eventually we became one of the most successful garage bands on the south side of Chicago. I left for a year to go to a seminary. Then I came back, began playing bass, and decided that was the instrument for me. We played a lot of private and public schools throughout the area.
I went to college and received a degree in art education. I went on to teach sophomores, juniors, and seniors at a local high school. Finally I left teaching to pursue a career in Styx. I remember telling my father. While he was disappointed, he understood. Now I was about to begin living my life as a young gay guy, in a very public role.
The song "Lady" hit it big on radio. Soon we went from a band being ignored, to a band that was hot. We released a few albums, and then the Grand Illusion appears, it is a glorious album. Everybody wrote collectively on it. Part of my job was to oversee the artwork for the albums. The Grand Illusion artwork was originally going to be smaller, but I asserted my beliefs that it remained the way it appeared in the end. Being so involved in music had become my way of living with the secret I kept from most. My sexual life was never a topic of discussion amongst the band. We had too many other things to focus on, besides our personal sexual lives. I had told my brother and sister when I was 20 that I was gay. 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.
In 1991, a doctor diagnosed me as HIV positive. I in turn asked the doctor, 'how long do I have to live?' The doctor said, "I don't know". I then asked, 'what can I do?' The doctor's reply, "I don't know". So I walked away not knowing. The attitude seemed to be, I don't know when you're going to die, but it doesn't matter. I then did something that turned out to be somewhat prophetic, I walked into a clinic where gay guys are treated for sexually transmitted diseases. I wrote a check and told them I knew they were doing research on an STD that there is no cure for right now, and that I wanted to donate money to the effort, thinking some day it might come in handy for me. Little did I know how true that would be later on in my life.
In 1998, I became really sick. It was then I came to the realization, that I couldn't live like this anymore. I would live alone, by myself, and never connect with anyone. So I set goals, to get well, to perform again, and to out myself as a gay man with HIV. The hardest goal to reach was going to be getting well. I had severe anemia, which the doctors didn't know how to treat very well at first. I began a treatment of 23 different pills a day and various shots. It was a very aggressive regimen. This disease is not for sissies. I feel I have a moral obligation to help further the cause of research by my participation in study groups. I will continue to do so. 21st century medicine, doctors, psychologists, and support from other HIV individuals all play a very important role in surviving with HIV and AIDS.
In the beginning of treatment there were literally days I did not want to take my medicines, due to side effects, but I kept in mind those that were living as I was, like Greg Louganis and Magic Johnson. If they could do it so could I. The medicines, which are now down to about half of what I originally had to take, will now be a part of the rest of my life. As well as the visits to the physician every six weeks for blood test. There are many side effects that go with taking the drugs, such as osteoporosis, wasting, heart problems, diabetes...just to name a few. But side effects from medicine is a part of the factor for most anyone that has to take them on a long-term basis. As long as you stay on your medicine, and fight aggressively, they are finding you can live an average life span. Not only did I have to adjust to taking all this medication, there were lifestyle changes to deal with. At first when I was really sick, I had to become use to not being able to go anywhere for the most part, or only going out for small periods of time. It also requires eliminating stress from your life. Most people have to revise their work schedules, or not work at all. In making all these adjustments for myself I was able to bring down my viral load count and raise my T-Cell count. I was on my way to getting better. Which would allow me to reach goal number two...to perform again.
I had told the guys in the band I would not be able to tour, that my goal at this point was to get well, and I would keep them informed as to how I was doing. Then in the middle of this, I was dealing with losing John a few years ago, to now losing my mother. When my brother died, I had told my sister that mom wouldn't make it past another two years. I was right. I had just begun taking all the medicine I was prescribed when she passed away. I was very weak at the time and it was very difficult to take the medicine through it all, but I did.
My first show back was Las Vegas. I wondered to myself "Why did you pick Vegas of all places to make a return?" Well I figured if it was good enough for Elvis to make his comeback, it would be good enough for me. It turned out to be a glorious moment. The energy and response from the crowd welcoming me back was very emotional and uplifting. I just completed a 40-city tour this past year (2001), however I don't think I could do that again. It is too difficult to try to maintain taking medicine, get enough rest, and eat the right foods while out on the road. I do not totally want to retire from performing. I plan to appear with the band occasionally. Now my second goal had been met, next was to out myself.
I wanted to find a way to out myself in a positive and meaningful way. I began communicating to various people I knew about how to do this, and while I was doing this, my best friend of 22 years, Richard, passed away. I had told him to get an HIV test, he finally went in February, then he died in July. Here I was getting better, and he died senselessly. When my friend died, there was no funeral, he was cremated. I had to be the one to call his employer and break the news of his passing. I didn't want my life to end up like this. If I was going to die, I was going to be the one to write my own obituary...I wanted to say it while I was alive. I didn't want people to read in the paper "Chuck Panozzo dies from complications of AIDS". It was through all of this that I became involved with the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) and decided that was the avenue I wanted to use to out myself.
At the HRC dinner, in front of 1000 guest, I announced that I was gay and HIV positive. I had the support of family and friends that were present. My aunt and uncle, my sister, her husband, a cousin, James Young, and other friends were there for me. They all supported my choice and decision to do this. Having a supportive family is very helpful. My proclamation that night is what I'm all about. I think my decision to out myself now was the right time for me, had I done it years ago, I would have had to quit the band. I could not have risked being a possible reason for the band to fail, by announcing I was gay. I couldn't have risked the careers of my partners because I was gay.
Another key thing to me getting better, was to change my attitude in the beginning, face HIV/AIDS as an illness, instead of something terminal. This was something I had to do personally, because some days are good, some are bad. You really have to live one day at a time. I'm now taking time to discover who I am. It will only make me a better person. I'm learning to relate better with social interaction. I have also come to appreciate all of the people around me that encouraged me. This is my life, I have to participate in it and take control. Just because I'm gay, and don't fit the norm, doesn't mean people should write me off.
My plans for the future are to be involved with the HRC and HIV/AIDS awareness activities. I feel very strongly about HIV testing. I am adamant about "Gay Rights" and I want to be sure laws are made and protected for all. There will be no second-class citizens in this society. I want to record with Styx, do a few shows every now and then. I want to live an unburdened life, free from a lot of stress. If I can stare death in the face, the little comments and small attitudes don't bother me. No one should be on their deathbed with regrets. I have seen that too many times. I now have to continue my journey to find out what I am about.
I am not a hero by any means, the real heroes are the researchers who have dedicated their lives to finding treatments that work. The easier they make the protocols, the more people will benefit. World government has not done a very good job, so it will be important that we remain vigilant to the cause. The cost of treatment can be very high, and making treatment available to all is a key factor. We have to make sure things are not being ignored. As long as there are researchers out there and great docs to carry the flag we will prevail.
My wish is to inspire others, gay or straight, to live a proud just life. If I can inspire just one person to follow their bliss, I guarantee it will fill their soul and set their spirit free.
Peace and Love,
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