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Despite adversity and living with AIDS, Leon Sanderson believes he's living a blessed life

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The old upright piano is well-used, and it's a far cry from the glistening organs and pianos Leon Sanderson sold for so many years.

But when Sanderson, the organist for Midwest City's St. Philip Neri Catholic Church, takes the seat at this instrument that encompasses almost an entire wall in his small living room, the piano is transformed into something close to magical.

'A house made of glass'
'Indoctrinated patriotism'
The hard years
'Success'

Sanderson wasn't reading music on a recent afternoon as his fingers brought "Amazing Grace" to life.

As the old song of praise hung in the air, Douglas Myers stood in the doorway to the kitchen. It was more than a look of admiration on his face. Watching Sanderson's hands, Myers, Sanderson's partner of 21 years, wore an expression of awe, love and genuine respect for the man at the piano.

The man at the piano lives with AIDS, as does his partner. There was a time when to be diagnosed with AIDS was a death sentence. But it's been 25 years since Sanderson and Myers tested positive.

Within that quarter of a century, Sanderson has lived a life so full that it makes him wonder what would have been produced from the lives of so many people who lost their battles with AIDS.

'A house made of glass'
Sanderson and Myers' tiny brick house sits at the corner of a busy Oklahoma City intersection.
"I'm a 55-year-old gay man who's been gay all my life and who's lived in the closet of a house made of glass," Sanderson said with a smile. "For 21 years, I've lived at a busy intersection and focal point to the world."

But he is not, he said, a "militant type." Rather, he said it is through love, service and patriotism that he tries to show others that gay people " even those with full-blown AIDS " are normal, productive members of society.

Those members of society, however, have been hurt by anti-gay rhetoric, including Sanderson, although he chooses to focus on how much he loves the people of Oklahoma City.

Sanderson and Myers are active constituents in state Senate District 46 and have shared their concerns with Sen. Andrew Rice, D-Oklahoma City.

"My sense is that Leon feels that some people want it both ways: They want to act like anti-gay rhetoric is no big deal by ignoring how it is hurtful and possibly dangerous to our LGBT friends and family and neighbors, but at the same time wanting to claim they have 'no issues' with the LGBT community," Rice said.  

'Indoctrinated patriotism'
"It really gets under my skin when they say, 'Who's really American? Who's really patriotic?'" Sanderson said.

"When I hear all this hate about who's really American and who should be here, I can't even presume to think about what Jesus would say."

He said he believes "real America" includes all types.

Sanderson has what he calls an "indoctrinated patriotism."

A registered Republican from 1976 to 2006, he takes pride in the fact that he has voted in every major election since he was eligible to do so.

His has also been a face at numerous town hall meetings with local and state politicians.
At an Oklahoma City town hall meeting with Republican Sen. Tom Coburn last August, Sanderson was a few seats away from a crying woman who pleaded with Coburn for a solution to paying for her husband, who was sent home with a feeding tube in his stomach, to stay alive after a traumatic brain injury. The woman had health care, but it would not pay for trained help or a nursing home.

Coburn's response was: "The idea that the government is a solution to our problems is an inaccurate, a very inaccurate statement." He also said her neighbors should help and that his office would help.

Sanderson's emotions were charged.

He and Myers had been through that woman's situation before.

The hard years
Sanderson believes in the power of coincidence.

So, when that woman mentioned her husband's feeding tube and her helplessness, Sanderson's mind went immediately back to the "hard, poignant" years in the 1990s.

The year 1995 was his last of wearing the "dual hats" of piano and organ salesman and musician. After 16 years of selling Rodgers Organs with Jenkins Music Company, he sold his last organ to Edmond's Peace Lutheran Church. And it was his first year as organist for the Catholic Church of Saint Eugene in Oklahoma City.

On Jan. 7, 1995, Sanderson turned 40. For about 10 years, he had known he had AIDS, but a doctor's checkup on his birthday was to just be for a sinus infection. That doctor told him she could not see him anymore because he did not have insurance.

Within three months, Sanderson would become too familiar with playing for funerals.

In a two-week period after the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, Sanderson played for about seven funerals for victims, many of whom he knew through St. Eugene's.

By the end of 1995, he lost a cousin, who died at age 40 from Type 1 diabetes. He lost friends and colleagues to AIDS, and, "even in that era of AIDS, people were listed as having died of something else because of the stigma," he said.

Four years later, in May 1999, Sanderson got a call he will never forget, but hates to remember.
Myers had been in a horrific traffic accident just down the street. His 1985 Buick LeSabre was broadsided at a stop light.

As Sanderson sat in the hospital's waiting room, he saw an old Buick Riviera pulling into the parking lot.

It was one of the women who attended St. Eugene's, and she had a broken ankle and walked in a cast. But she was coming for Sanderson.

"I looked at her and said, 'What the hell are you doing here?'" he said.

With tears in his eyes, Sanderson recalls her response: "I didn't want you to be alone."

"These were people who unconditionally had compassion and truly do care," Sanderson said.

Myers suffered a broken hip, crushed pelvis and head injury, among other problems. He was put into a medicated coma " and was sent home with a feeding tube in his stomach. Doctors told him he might not walk again.

He also had no insurance, and the accident left them struggling.

In October, things got worse: Sanderson was diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma, a cancer originating from white blood cells.

Sanderson, who already had a compromised immune system because of AIDS, got a call from a woman who attended the church.

"I don't know what you have," she told him. "But I believe in miracles."

The visitors kept pouring into his hospital room, as did the phone calls. Sanderson was given a quilt, which he still has, that was made by church members. The squares have handwritten sentiments: "Mi Hermano" (my brother); "Others play in your place, but you are irreplaceable."

"They all knew I have AIDS and knew I had a partner, and they accepted me and loved me for my ability to help them with their music," said Sanderson, with more tears in his eyes.

Because of the compassion of the people who listened to his music in church every weekend, he became a Catholic.

'Success'
When Sanderson was 10 years old and his grandmother had caught on to his skill with a piano, she told him: "Use your talent for God, and you will be blessed."

"She never told me to become rich or have what everyone else calls success," Sanderson said.

If love were currency, he said he would be more than a billionaire.

But it is not.

Sanderson was placed on disability because of the cancer and AIDS. Myers was on disability because of his injuries from the wreck and AIDS.

The number of hours Sanderson can work playing the organ are limited so he can stay on disability. If he didn't stay on disability, the money he made through extra hours would help, but it would not pay for his or Myers' expensive medications. And neither man can afford the insurance that would cover it.

It is a anger-inducing conundrum, Sanderson said. He wants to work harder, but he can't.

While trying to re-finance a major loan, he told his banker: "I am as sincere as I can be. It's no secret: Doug and I are partners. You've not discriminated against us. We have AIDS. We have lived with every kind of social system there is, and we don't want a free lunch."

Sanderson and Myers are receiving help with financing their medication for AIDS through the federal Ryan White Program, which assists the uninsured and people who otherwise cannot financially cope with AIDS or HIV.

"If it had not been for George H.W. Bush signing this law, we and millions of others would have never known what it was like to live with AIDS," Sanderson said.

He emphasized the word "live." He's seen too many die.

"Here we are, 55 and 59, and we're not the only ones still alive with this disease now," he said.

For a while after the Coburn town hall meeting, Sanderson said he was "full of passion, wanting to get back at him" for his response to the crying woman.

"But now, I hope I have a better approach in saying a collective 'thank you' to all of the people who have surrounded us with their unconditional passion and human respect," he said. "God knows we have not been angels," Sanderson said. "And yet he seems to surround us with them at every point." "Hailey R. Branson

photo top
Leon Sanderson at the organ.
photo middle Leon Sanderson at the piano.
photo bottom Leon Sanderson with his quilt. Photos/Mark Hancock

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