For more than 30 years, Styx bassist Chuck Panozzo has helped rock fans escape through teary power ballads, progressive-rock anthems and futuristic sci-fi concepts. Now he's urging whomever he can to confront reality and publicly embrace their homosexuality, as a spokesperson for the Human Rights Campaign's National Coming Out Project.
In his new role, Panozzo will speak with the press, work to promote AIDS awareness and encourage those at risk to get tested for the disease. He also hopes to help closeted gay men and women open up and come out.
"Gays and lesbians need to know that coming out is not such a bad thing," he said. "In fact, it's the most liberating thing that they could ever imagine. It's something that can really touch their soul and free their spirit."
Panozzo came out on July 28 at the Human Rights Campaign's annual dinner in Chicago. He also admitted he's been living with advanced AIDS since 1999.
"I didn't want to be in denial anymore," he said from his Chicago home. "I had seen my brother [Styx drummer John Panozzo] in denial, and he died of addiction [in 1996]. My best friend was in denial of having AIDS, and he died of it. I said, 'I can't be that person.' I don't want to be a coward about this thing and at the end of my life have somebody else say, 'Oh, well, he died of AIDS.' I didn't want that to be me."
Panozzo was diagnosed with HIV in 1991; he remained untreated and symptom-free for eight years. Then the disease hit hard. Despite immediate treatment, he was intensely ill for the next 18 months.
"I had every condition that comes with having advanced HIV," he said. "I lost 50 pounds and I had terrible anemia. And my mother was dying at the time I was starting to take my meds, which was really difficult. I was prescribed protease inhibitors, which save lives, but they're very difficult to take. I had to pull out of the band for a while because I had a fight on my hands that was more important than anything."
This year, Panozzo played 32 shows with Styx even though he was still battling AIDS. He admits he has good and bad days now, but stresses the importance of staying active and not giving up.
"I really had to say to myself, 'Hey, your life isn't over yet. You have other productive things to do.' And that's why I feel so strongly about the HRC," he said. "I think I left this glorious professional legacy, but my personal life sucked because I never addressed my homosexuality. So I needed to make another mark in my life.
"If I can make one person go and get tested and question why they've lived in the closet as long as they have, then I have succeeded, and my brother and my friend will not have died in vain."