After 26 years together, Jim and Duane work to defeat Minnesota marriage amendment

On July 19, 2006, exactly twenty years after they first met, Jim Lawser and Duane Bandel traveled to Vancouver, Canada to proudly declare their love for each other by getting married.

One year before, on their nineteenth anniversary, Duane proposed to Jim, suggesting that they make the trek to Canada and tie the knot to recognize their shared commitment. Jim said yes, and over the next year, the couple worked with a Vancouver-based wedding planner to make all of the arrangements for the big day from across the border.

The ceremony took place at the Vancouver wedding commissioner's home, in her yard. It was small: Just Jim and Duane, two friends who acted as official witnesses, Jim's cousin who acted as the ring bearer, the officiant, the wedding planners, and the videographers. After the ceremony, the wedding party went to Queen Elizabeth Park, the highest point in Vancouver, for lunch.

"The wedding was wonderful," Duane said. "It was a perfect day, and we had a fabulous lunch, and we just spent the rest of the day glowing in the beautiful July weather."

Since 1990, Jim and Duane have been living together in their home in Minneapolis, Minnesota. They're one of thousands of couples who would be affected by a proposed constitutional amendment that would permanently limit the freedom to marry for same-sex couples in the state.

In the early spring of 2002 Jim and Duane decided to pay a lawyer to draft legal documents that would guarantee certain protections afforded to different-sex married couples. These rights include inheritance, durable power of attorney, and the right to make health care decisions for each other as stated in a health care directive. Coincidently, a few weeks after the papers were signed, Duane was rushed by ambulance to the hospital.

Although Jim and Duane had all of the necessary legal paperwork, they did not have the materials with them, and the admitting doctor refused to speak with Jim until copies of the legal documents were included in Duane's medical records. Jim was forced to drive home to get the paperwork before the doctor would speak with him. After a series of illnesses, near-death experiences, hospitalizations, doctor visits and medical tests, Duane spent the next five months at home recovering and working hard to regain his strength and weight. During his hospitalizations and throughout his recovery, Jim was able to take sick time from his job to care for Duane only because his supervisor permitted him to - not because she was legally obligated to do so, since Jim is not legally Duane's spouse in Minnesota. Through all of this, Jim remained at Duane's side, offering love, strength and support, just as any committed, loving spouse would do.

Now, the couple always carries copies of their medical records and legal paperwork with them on flash drives. This way, they are always ready for the unexpected.

When Jim and Duane found out about the proposed amendment, which Minnesotans will vote on during the November 6 election, they were upset about its potential to permanently invalidate their marriage in their own community.

"I was furious," Jim said. "Minnesota already has a state law saying that we can't get married. To write that into the Constitution and to enshrine the idea that certain people are not equal to other people is incredibly inappropriate. The Constitution has always served to protect the minority against the majority, so we were absolutely livid."

To help combat the amendment, Jim and Duane have signed on as participants in Andrew's Round Table, an initiative facilitated through Minnesotans United for All Families, the coalition working to encourage Minnesotans to vote NO on this discriminatory amendment.

As part of Andrew's Round Table, which is named in honor of Cpl. Andrew Wilfahrt, an openly gay Minnesotan who died last year while serving in Afghanistan, Jim and Duane travel to local events to share their story. They talk about their 26 years together as a couple, how they've supported each other through challenging or trying times, and why they don't want to see their home state constitutionally exclude couples like them from sharing a formal commitment to each other.

They explain why marriage matters to them, saying that they were treated differently - more respectfully - after coming back to Minnesota after their Vancouver wedding.

"It was suddenly like our relationship became legitimate," Duane said. "We had been together for almost 20 years, and yet people thought of us as roommates. And when we told people that we were getting married, it was like suddenly we were really a couple. People get that we're a real couple - that our relationship is about love and commitment."

Watch the video below of Jim and Duane talking about the amendment in Minnesota for the Public Insight Network to learn more.

Editors' Note: On November 6, 2012, voters in Maine, Maryland, Minnesota and Washington will be voting on marriage-related ballot measures. Mainers are being asked to vote YES on Question 1 to proactively pass the freedom to marry at the ballot. Residents in Washington and Maryland are being asked to vote to APPROVE Referendum 74 and to vote FOR Question 6, respectively, to uphold marriage laws passed by their state legislatures in February and March 2012. Minnesotans are being asked to vote NO on a proposed amendment that would constitutionally exclude same-sex couples from marriage. In these next two months before the election, Freedom to Marry will be profiling couples and volunteers for the state campaigns. Read more about the ballot initiatives HERE, and check back on the blog over the next five weeks for couples' stories.