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Styx Bassist Chuck Panozzo on The Mission & HIV Positivity

Styx Bassist Chuck Panozzo on The Mission & HIV Positivity

Don’t Let It End
Courtesy of Jason Powell

As a founding member of the famous classic-rock band Styx, Chuck Panozzo had to keep his HIV status a secret—until his life depended on it.

Chuck Panozzo is in his element. It's a weekend in early July, and his band Styx has just played to an enraptured crowd in its hometown of Chicago. After 45 years of touring, tragedy, and navigating the choppy waters of musical taste, Styx is back with a new record, The Mission.

The group's homecoming is something Panozzo, its bassist and a founding member, never thought he'd see for deeply personal reasons. "When I can stand up there with the other musicians," he says the day after the show, "and not only be out but also have everybody know I'm HIV-positive, it's very freeing."

The road to freedom has been long for Panozzo, who has remained a Styx constant over several lineup changes. He formed the band with his twin brother, John, and vocalist-keyboardist Dennis DeYoung in working-class Chicago in the mid-1960s. By the late '70s, their bombastic prog rock had turned AM-radio gold; they went on to release a record-breaking four consecutive multiplatinum albums and climb the charts with hits like "Come Sail Away" and "Mr. Roboto." Panozzo realized he was different at a young age, but when his music career took off, his sexuality took a back seat. "When we became successful it was like being skyrocketed into the stratosphere," he says. "It was exhilarating for a time, but after multiple years I felt more repressed and more out of step with who I was."

Panozzo came out to his family at 21; his twin brother, who'd had his back since they were kids, supported him. But Panozzo didn't go public. There were no role models, and it was an oppressive time, he says. Besides, it wasn't just himself he had to think about. "My dilemma was, if I come out as gay and there's a backlash, am I willing to ruin my career and four other people's careers?" he recalls. "That's a lot of pressure."

So he stayed in the closet through a band split and reformation. In 1991, he was diagnosed as HIV-positive. At the time, his doctor could offer no help, so he didn't go on any medication. Panozzo stayed healthy for a number of years, but then family tragedy struck, twice. His twin, John, who was suffering from alcoholism, died in 1996, and their mother passed away within two years. The surviving son was too focused on his family trauma to think about his own health. "I put everybody ahead of me," says Panozzo.

In 1998, he became seriously ill. He had severe anemia and, on the advice of his doctor, began aggressive therapy, taking 23 pills a day. "It was the sickest time of my life, both psychologically and physically," says Panozzo, "but that's where I found the strength to say, 'I can no longer live this life as a closeted man, so I'm willing to leave this band.' "

Panozzo stopped touring the following year. He got his viral load down and raised his T-cell count, becoming well enough to play again in Las Vegas in 2001, after the group experienced a revival thanks to fans like Judd Apatow and Carrie Bradshaw ("I loooooove Styx!" Carrie gushed in the third season of Sex and the City). But more personal heartache followed when Panozzo's friend of 22 years, Richard, died of HIV-related lymphoma.

His passing propelled Panozzo to action: He came out as gay and HIV-positive at a Human Rights Campaign dinner the same year. Disclosing his status, he says, was liberating. "Having been raised Catholic, I've been through every ritual, and I've never felt a thing," he says. "Nothing. The only time I've felt anything is when I said I'm going to live my life as an openly gay man. All of a sudden, I truly felt that my spirit and soul were set free."

Despite dealing with cancer twice, Panozzo says he's healthy now and looking forward to his 69th birthday this month. He's fit enough to join Styx on tour to promote the new album--their 16th. He describes The Mission as "more thrilling than I can imagine," perhaps because he has found his own mission.

Young fans frequently reach out to him to reveal their HIV-positive status, and he's flattered--he wants to use his public platform to educate and support. "When I go onstage I never know who's going to be out there," he says. "But if there's a young gay man who's gone through the same thing I have, I'd like him to think, If he can do this, then why can't I?"

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