Treading carefully, United States President Barack Obama praised New York state lawmakers who were debating landmark legislation on Thursday to legalize same-sex marriage. But as expected, the president stopped short of embracing same-sex marriage himself, instead asking gay and lesbian donors for patience.

The President’s views on same-sex marriage are a sore point with gay supporters who’ve otherwise warmed to Mr. Obama. The President has said his views are “evolving,” but for now he supports civil unions, not same-sex marriage.

As Mr. Obama spoke at a Manhattan fundraiser, his first geared specifically to the gay community, a handful of pro-gay marriage protesters shouted out “marriage!” And Mr. Obama said, “I heard you guys.” He never directly mentioned gay marriage. Coincidentally, the long-planned event occurred just as lawmakers in Albany were debating legislation that would make New York the sixth and by far the largest state to legalize gay marriage.

“I believe that gay couples deserve the same legal rights as every other couple in this country,” the President said.

Mr. Obama said progress will be slower than some people want, but he added that he was confident that there will be a day “when every single American, gay or straight or lesbian or bisexual or transgender, is free to live and love as they see fit.

“Traditionally marriage has been decided by the states and right now I understand there’s a little debate going on here in New York,” he said to laughter. New York’s lawmakers, he said, are “doing exactly what democracies are supposed to do.”

Debate on the measure continued into the night at the statehouse, and the outcome was uncertain.

Mr. Obama said there were those who shouted at him at events about other causes of the gay community, such as the need for anti-hate crimes legislation and for the repeal of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” ban on openly gay military service, and both of those have since been achieved.

Mr. Obama also has won favour by instructing the Justice Department to stop defending in court a law defining marriage as between a man and a woman.

Mr. Obama told of receiving a letter last year from a teenager in a small town. He said the boy was a senior in high school who was gay and was afraid to come out. The boy wondered to the president why gays shouldn’t be equal like everyone else.

“So, yes, we have more work to do,” Mr. Obama said. “Yes, we have more progress to make. Yes, I expect continued impatience with me on occasion.”

Overall the reaction Mr. Obama got was warm from the crowd of nearly 600 who paid up to $35,800 each to hear him speak at a midtown hotel. And only a small group of protesters showed up to demonstrate outside for marriage equality. It was a measure of how much the gay community has warmed to Mr. Obama since earlier in his administration when donors threatened to boycott Democratic fundraisers to pressure Mr. Obama on “don’t ask, don’t tell.”

If Mr. Obama were to endorse gay marriage, it would give a jolt of enthusiasm to his liberal base and perhaps unlock additional fundraising dollars from the well-heeled gay community. It’s not clear it would get him too many additional votes in 2012 though, because the Republican field’s general opposition to gay rights gives activists no alternative to Mr. Obama.

At the same time, supporting gay marriage could alienate some religious voters that the politically cautious White House might still hope to win over for Obama’s re-election campaign.

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