BEVERLY HILLS — When President Obama told a roomful of supporters at a gay-rights gala here Wednesday that seeing tears streaming down the faces of gay Americans after he repealed “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” has ranked among the highlights of his presidency, he could have been talking about Vito Imbasciani.
Imbasciani, who introduced the president at the 600-guest fundraiser hosted by the LGBT Leadership Council Gala, is a surgeon and colonel in the Army National Guard who is gay. He and his partner have two adopted children — who, because of the “Don’t Ask” policy, were never able to greet him at the airport when he came back from three active-duty tours.
“The price of my service was to live a lie,” Imbasciani said on the ballroom stage of the Beverly Wilshire Hotel, where his diminutive frame was barely visible behind the lectern that had been set up for the much-taller Obama. “I kept their existence secret because that’s what the law required.”
He paused, then added, prompting a roar from the crowd: “But not anymore.”
Following remarks by comedian Ellen DeGeneres and a performance by “Glee” star Darren Criss, who plays a gay student on the Fox series, the president had to plead with the audience to sit down after a long and emotional ovation and chants of “Four more years!” Twin screens on each side of the stage displayed huge “Obama Pride” logos.
“The fight on behalf of the LGBT community is part of a broader fight on behalf of all Americans,” the president said. “It’s a part of a history of trying to make this union a bit more perfect.”
Obama touted a list of accomplishments that extend new protections to gays and lesbians, including the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” allowing hospital visitation for same-sex partnership and expanding federal hate-crimes law to include crimes motivated by sexual orientation.
Gay supporters have been a pillar of Obama’s fundraising strength; about one in six top Obama campaign “bundlers,” who amass contributions from others, is gay, according to a Washington Post analysis. But they also have been impatient with his self-described “evolution” on gay marriage. Wednesday represented Obama’s first major outreach to gay and lesbian supporters since he declared that he is now for gay marriage, and they received him enthusiastically.
The evening also featured a somewhat awkward moment for the president, who thanked “my wonderful friend,” DeGeneres, for her role in the program. Obama said DeGeneres “accepts a little bit of teasing about Michelle beating her in push-ups, but I think she claims Michelle didn’t go all the way down.”
The crowd heard a racy double-entendre and roared with laughter, and Obama--who showed no sign that he was going for a raunchy punchline--seemed thrown off. “That’s what I heard,” he finally said. “I just want to set the record straight: Michelle outdoes me in push-ups as well.”
Tickets for the sold-out LGBT Leadership Council Gala started at $1,250 per person, and 600 people bought them. The gala was the centerpiece of a two-day fundraising swing to San Francisco and Los Angeles that was expected to net more than $5.5 million. Obama also attended a smaller, $25,000-a-plate dinner later Wednesday at the home of “Glee” creator Ryan Murphy, as well as a breakfast Thursday at the home of developer Charles Quarles.
Actresses Julia Roberts, Reese Witherspoon and Jane Lynch attended the Murphy reception.
Earlier Wednesday in San Francisco, the president participated in a closed-door roundtable meeting with 25 local business leaders (ticket price: $35,800), and a fundraising luncheon for 250 (general admission: $5,000).
In San Francisco, Obama mentioned neither same-sex marriage nor the previous day’s Wisconsin election, in which Republican Gov. Scott Walker withstood a Democratic effort to recall him. Obama appeared with baseball legend Willie Mays, California Gov. Jerry Brown and Timothy M. Kaine, who is running for Senate in Virginia after serving as chairman of the Democratic National Committee.
But in Los Angeles, where the audience included Cher and “Modern Family” star Jesse Tyler Ferguson, appealing to the gay community was the president’s central message. He recalled working out on a Marine base in Hawaii at Christmastime and having one soldier after another (all fit and with low-body fat, he said, garnering more laughs) thank him for repealing Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.
“I could not be prouder of the work we’ve done on behalf of the LGBT community,” he said.
The singer Pink was originally scheduled to perform at the gala but canceled because of illness. Criss was the fill-in, and jokingly tweeted on Monday: “ :) So bummed I’ll have to miss my dental appointment to sing for The US President Wed night. thanx @Pink for messin that up!! _#greattiming.”
Asked on Air Force One on Wednesday whether Obama is a fan of “Glee,” White House press secretary Jay Carney said he wasn’t certain.
“I haven’t heard the president talk about that,” Carney said. “I think he has referenced some of the shows he does watch, so I don’t know — I don’t know the answer to your question.”
Money raised at the events will go to the Obama Victory Fund, a joint fund that includes Obama’s reelection campaign, the Democratic National Committee and state Democratic parties.
Staff writer Felicia Sonmez contributed to this report from Washington.