WASHINGTON (CNN) -- President Obama honored Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Pride Month with a White House reception Monday where he likened the struggle for gay rights with the struggle of African-Americans for civil rights.
President Obama and first lady Michelle Obama entertain Monday in the White House's East Room.
With first lady Michelle Obama at his side, the president told the cheering crowd filling the East Room that his administration would work to repeal the so-called Defense of Marriage Act and end the "don't ask, don't tell" policy regarding gays in the military.
"I know that many in this room don't believe that progress has come fast enough, and I understand that," Obama said. "It's not for me to tell you to be patient any more than it was for others to counsel patience to African-Americans who were petitioning for equal rights a half-century ago."
The "don't ask, don't tell" policy bars military officials from asking about a service member's sexual orientation but also bars the service member from revealing it, and allows the dismissal of a service member if a same-sex orientation is discovered.
"I believe preventing patriotic Americans from serving their country weakens our national security," Obama said to applause. Ending the policy requires an act of Congress and will take time, he added.
The Defense of Marriage Act effectively bars the federal government from recognizing same-sex unions, even as individual states legalize them. It is one of the most divisive political issues in America, strongly backed by conservatives -- particularly the religious right.
"We have a duty to uphold existing law, but I believe we must do so in a way that does not exacerbate old divides," Obama said. "And fulfilling this duty in upholding the law in no way lessens my commitment to reversing this law."
He also is pushing for passage of a law guaranteeing full benefits including health care for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender couples and their children, as well as bills to strengthen laws against hate crimes and prevent employment discrimination based on sexuality, Obama said.
"There are unjust laws to overturn and unfair practices to stop," he said. "And though we've made progress, there are still fellow citizens -- perhaps neighbors or even family members and loved ones -- who still hold fast to worn arguments and old attitudes, who fail to see your families like their families and who would deny you the rights that most Americans take for granted. And I know this is painful, and I know it can be heartbreaking."
Obama cited the roots of the gay rights struggle in the Stonewall riot 40 years ago, when police raided a New York nightclub and sparked a demonstration that lasted for days.
"As we've seen so many times in history, once that spirit takes hold, there's little that can stand in its way," he said to cheers that turned to laughs when he added: "The truth is, when these folks protested at Stonewall 40 years ago, no one could have imagined that you or, for that matter, I would be standing here today."