Addressing LGBT Democrat supporters at a New York fundraiser last night, Barack Obama spoke carefully, aware of the current gay marriage debate in the state Senate.

The president, who said in December that his views on the matter were “evolving”, told supporters at the Sheraton New York Hotel and Towers that gay couples should have “the same legal rights as every other couple in this country”.

New York lawmakers are currently considering a bill to give gay couples marriage equality. The bill needs one more vote to pass, but has been held up over concerns about religious freedom.

Gay rights campaigners hoped Obama would give explicit support for gay marriage, but were disappointed.

The president said: “Right now, I understand there’s a little debate going on in New York about whether to join five other states and DC in allowing civil marriage for gay couples.

“And I want to say under the leadership of Governor [Andrew] Cuomo, with the support of Democrats and Republicans, New York is doing exactly what democracies are supposed to do. There’s a debate, there’s deliberation about what it means here in New York to treat people fairly in the eyes of the law. That’s the power of our democratic system.”

He added: “I believe that gay couples deserve the same legal rights as every other couple in this country.”

During his speech, in which he highlighted progress on the military gay ban and benefits for spouses of gay federal employees, several people heckled, shouting: “Say yes to marriage.”

“That’s why we’re going to keep on fighting until the law no longer treats committed partners who’ve been together for decades like they’re strangers,” Obama responded.

“That’s why I have long believed that the so-called Defense of Marriage Act ought to be repealed,” he added.

When asked about the president’s views on gay marriage, White House spokesman Jay Carney said the president “believes that this is something that states should be able to decide”.

This is the first fundraiser the president has held with the LGBT community, which is considered an important Democrat voter base.

According to a CNN exit poll, four per cent of voters are gay or lesbian and 70 per cent of them voted for Obama in 2008.