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Barack Obama spoke to a mostly warm reception of gay rights activists at an LGBT gala in New York City tonight, endorsing the principle of civil equality for gay and lesbian couples without coming out for gay marriage, which he backed in the mid 1990s and then distanced himself from as he ran for national office over the past decade.

“I believe that gay couples deserve the same legal rights as every other couple in this country,” he told the audience of high-dollar contributors.

He spoke favorably of New York State’s push for marriage equality — it has passed the Assembly but has yet to receive a vote in the State Senate–but didn’t answer a heckler who intoned, “Do you support it?!”

The president quoted pop icon and prominent LGBT activist Lady Gaga — “I had no choice … I was born that way,” he said in reference to discrimination he experienced growing up — and tried to keep the tone light in the face of occasional “marriage!” cat calls.

Americans have become increasingly supportive of gay marriage over the past decade; a Gallup poll last month showed a majority of 53 percent of Americans–about the percentage of votes Obama received in 2008–support marriage equality, but the president and his political team seem to have decided to steer clear of a full-on endorsement, at least for now.

Nonetheless, successful repeal of the Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy in the military, as well as the administration’s abandoning the “discriminatory” Defense of Marriage Act of 1996, has boosted the president’s support in the LGBT community, which is a key fundraising resource.

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