One phone call in 1993 changed the entire trajectory of Ellen Fischer’s career in law. And she’s so glad she answered.
The Southampton resident was a “newbie” second-year lawyer when a college friend in Ithaca, New York contacted her. Would she represent an individual named Francis, who was transitioning from a man into a woman, in a custody case?
“I had no idea what a transgender person was. I didn’t know the difference between transgender and the word transvestite,” admitted Fischer.
But she happily took the case. Now, nearly 30 years later, Fischer is a well-known legal ally of the LGBTQ+ community, and one of only six Pennsylvania lawyers serving on the LGBT Family Law Institute of the National LGBT Bar Association. As a partner at Fenningham, Dempster & Coval LLP in Trevose, she regularly handles same-sex marriage issues.
For her years of advocacy, Fischer was recently recognized by the Pennsylvania Bar Association as the recipient of the 2020 David M. Rosenblum LGBTQ+ Public Policy Award. This award – named in memory of Rosenblum, who was an active member of the PBA LGBTQ+ Rights Committee and a staunch proponent of civil rights before his untimely passing in 2014 – honors those who have effected change resulting in a positive impact for the LGBT community. Fischer received her award during a virtual ceremony last month.
“I was completely blown away,” she said of the award. “It’s a big deal within the legal community. You think right away, ‘I haven’t done enough to deserve this award.’ That’s how I truly felt. But I’ve been a legal ally my whole career. I’m very proud and very humbled. It makes you feel really, really good, especially when it comes out of the blue as a surprise.”
Fischer never intended to become a legal advocate for the LGBTQ+ community. But after helping Francis, who lived in Doylestown before moving to New York, she knew there had to be other transgender individuals who needed assistance in court. According to Fischer, being transgender was unacceptable in the early ‘90s. She reflected on how Francis, who became a fast friend, was considered an “oddity” with a pink suit and manicured nails.
“People knew we were coming and they just stared. It was really uncomfortable because nobody knew transgender,” Fischer recalled. “Lesbian mothers were finally allowed to spend alternating weekends with their children and not be a threat to them, so I was coming on the heels of that time in the world.”
Currently, Fischer is an active member of the PBA LGBTQ+ Rights Committee and chairs the Transgender Name Change Task Force, formed by past PBA president Sharon R. Lopez. Fischer explained how, if a transgender person wants to legally change their name to match their new identity, there are a number of hurdles they must jump through to make it happen.
“The law requires you to publicize the fact that you want to change your name. Transgender people care because the whole idea is not to be outed. But the law says that you have to publish. Hearings are public,” she said.
This process, Fischer added, is especially burdensome for teenagers, who often start fresh at a new school to avoid bullying once they transition. Publishing their name change in the local paper would reveal their old identity.
“If you’re Matthew but you present as Monica, and somebody accidentally calls you Matthew or having your school records have your name as Matthew and not Monica, it’s really scary for these kids,” she said. “And the reason you have to publish is to protect creditors. That’s the entire purpose. I don’t know 12-, 13- and 14-year-olds who even have creditors.”
The task force is working to improve the name change process for transgender people by eliminating the need for publishing.
“I’m happy to say that Pennsylvania is doing a wonderful job on a state level trying to make it easier,” Fischer said.
While Fischer said there’s not a ton of LGBTQ+ allies in the legal world, that number has steadily grown since 1993.
“You’ve got to be an ally. I was able to find a niche in that community because I got lucky. Somebody called me and helped me get there. I’m just really glad I was there and that I’m still here. I think the LGBT community is one of those groups that’s been discriminated against terribly, and knowing there are lawyers like me just gives a certain comfort level,” Fischer said. “As good as things have been looking for a number of years, I know there’s a lot of concern right now. We have a ways to go yet, but we’re very hopeful.”
Fischer received her B.A. and J.D. from Temple University, and is a member of the Pennsylvania Bar Association, Montgomery Bar Association, Bucks County Bar Association, Philadelphia Bar Association, National LGBT Bar Association, International Academy of Collaborative Professionals, Collaborative Law Professionals of Southeastern Pennsylvania and Bucks County Collaborative Law Group.
She is a proud wife, mother and grandmother.
Visit fsdc-law.com/attorneys/ellen-s-fischer for more information.
Samantha Bambino can be reached at email@example.com