Lesbian Filmmaker JD Disalvatore Dies
Activist for LGBT and animal rights.
JD Disalvatore was beloved by women, men, children, animals and the LGBT community. She was smart, she was funny, she had an aura of sexy butchness and she made you feel you were the only person in the room. She made great movies. She told good jokes. She left a legacy.
There can be no better obituary than that.
Sadly, I only met Disalvatore when she was working on her final project and I was interviewing her for Curve magazine last year. She was dying, but she wanted to save some lives before she died.
Cancer is a devastating diagnosis. It was devastating for Disalvatore. But she talked about it to me like it was another battle to be fought, won and set aside. Even though she knew there could be no winning this fight.
She talked about the hospital and treatment dismissively–a hand wave. "You know the drill," she said to me about the hospital. "City of Hopelessness, I call it. Petscan. More chemo. Dying. Yada, yada, yada."
Not many people would be able to talk that way about the Stage IV cancer that finally killed her on August 24 at the too-unfair-age of 51. But JD was driven to get things done. And she had some plans before her death.
I knew of Disalvatore before I knew her. Like other devotees of lesbian films, I knew her from "the longest kiss in lesbian film history" in Elena Undone, a film for which she was producer. Other movie-goers and Netflixers know her from blockbusters like Armageddon (where she oversaw a $7million budget) and The X-Files or the Pierce Brosnan thriller Dante’s Peak. Disalvatore’s done everything from executive producing to what she described as "blowing things up" in special effects.
Her final project was saving the lives of dogs. Because she loved dogs, dogs loved her and dogs get killed in shelters every day because there is nowhere for them to go. Disalvatore wanted to do whatever she could to stop that unnecessary killing. If she couldn’t stop her own impending death, she could save some dogs, broaden consciousness about shelter animals, create some change.
We talked about animal rescue in our last interview in May 2016. I had started a small no-kill shelter for cats with my partner and two close friends more than a decade ago. We talked about how much (most) lesbians love animals and how we were drawn to helping the most marginal animals—like domestic pets that have been abused and discarded–because so many of us had been tossed out of our families of origin in much the same way.
Disalvatore’s final project was a documentary, "How to Save a Dog." Watching her as she bonded with shelter dogs was something to see. Her love for the animals that are hardest to place was palpable. And they loved her right back.
Disalvatore had been determined not to die. That was her plan. "I don't think ["How to Save a Dog"] be my final project," she told me, "because I'm convinced I'll be miraculously cured of cancer."
She told me it would help if former president Jimmy Carter would hook her up with his doctor. As I said, she was funny.
For her, the volunteering was an extension of her lesbian life, "I'm really in that world," she explained. "Plus with all the social change we achieved through years of blood, sweat and tears in the LGBT community, I know that when we work together, we can get there."
She couldn’t resist a little jab at me, a stereotypical lesbian cat lady, though. "I'm just trying to piss off the cat people with that title, because you can't imagine what a pack of angry cat ladies coming at you is like!"
It was just a joke. Disalvatore never met an animal she didn’t like or want to save. "I work a ton with cats, actually, as well as rabbits, turtles, rats and chickens. I'm probably the only one that pays attention to the chickens at the shelter."
I wanted to hug her for loving the chickens. There are few less lovable domestic creatures than chickens.
Disalvatore (right) with Hilary Clinton (left)
Most of all though—apart from the animals and how loving she was with these discarded and abused former pets—I wanted to hug her for being an out lesbian in the most closeted place in America that should be the most openly, happily gay: Hollywood.
"I often stayed in the closet at work because it was so trendy and hip to be a lesbian," Disalvatore joked. "When I came out to the Effects Producer on ‘Dante's Peak,’ for example, I was suddenly invited to the private sanction of his office after wrap—you've seen this before, you know, where there is cognac and illegal Cuban cigars and man talk—and other times I was suddenly invited to strip joints—of all things! Bosses even asked me for tips on good oral sex."
Still from Elena Undone
There was so much about Disalvatore that was brave. Her ability to look cancer in the eye and keep going was how she had done everything. She was out, she was fighting to get lesbian films made, she was fighting to get lesbian films to lesbians who were starved for images of themselves on screen. And she was fighting for our rights along with all of that.
"At some point," Disalvatore explained, "I was just uber gay and uber out, then I was Festival Manager at Outfest, then I made gay films. Then suddenly, Focus on the Family started raising money based on hating us, all the anti marriage props [like Prop 22 in CA] came out, and then there were problems for being gay. Seriously. You know some vendors wouldn't rent to us in Los Angeles when we were shooting ‘Eating Out 2'? I was denied entry to a producer Internet network because my email was GayPropaganda? WTF!?"
Disalvatore was everywhere film was. She won a GLAAD media award for her film "Shelter." She wrote about film for a plethora of film sites and LGBT sites, including Curve. Disalvatore was on the Board of Directors of the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce, where she served a term as Vice President of the Board and was last President of the Board of Directors of the Frontiers Foundation. Disalvatore served as festival manager at Outfest: The Los Angeles Gay & Lesbian Film Festival and wrote The Smoking Cocktail blog to provide gay news on arts, culture and politics. After graduating from Boston University with a communications degree, she supervised graduate film production at the American Film Institute in Los Angeles, which she credited as having influenced her producing career.
After all that, what were her favorite films? "Dear Lawd, it's like asking who is your favorite child. I have to say ‘Shelter’ and ‘A Marine Story.’ It's like I gave birth to ‘Shelter,’ and we worked many years long and hard to bring ‘A Marine Story’ to screens. ‘Gay Propaganda’—for how hard it was—brought together a large, wonderful group of creative people and I have the fondest memories of that shoot!"
Shelter topped Logo’s NewNextNow’s list of The 100 Greatest Gay Movies of All Time in 2012, and that was a point of pride for her. She also thought her work with The Point Foundation to mentor LGBT youth scholars was vital to creating that change she was always striving for—lives she was always trying to save. That was so much of her legacy—those films about change that also changed those who saw them...
One of the things that was so engaging about Disalvatore was how everything mattered to her. She spoke in exclamation points. She was so engaged, so vibrant, so fully present in a world where we need self-help books on mindfulness, that when I talked to her, I couldn’t imagine she could die. It sounds trite, and she would hate that, but she was so full of life–brimming over with it. She didn’t look sick then, in May 2016. And she had ideas about death and survival. She’d lived through the AIDS crisis with friends. She knew how fast things could turn.
She said, "Just because I got a terminal disease, I am not dead yet and this is just what I have to deal with. It's no better or worse than the next person, this is just what happened to me, so I have to deal with it with humor and humility. It's hard, because many of the cancer doctors just don't care about us Stage IVs because we can't be cured."
And, in the end, she was not cured. But she left that legacy. She said women should take care of themselves because no one else was taking care of us. She said you could live with cancer as long as it let you if you worked with life, not death. She ate a good diet, did yoga and meditation, spent a lot of time with animals, who have been proven to help heal humans just with their presence.
"This stuff works," Disalvatore asserted. "I'm living proof. I have lost several friends in the last year to cancer, and sadly it was too soon because they weren't educated enough in how to LIVE with the disease and go beyond what their doctors say."
I want you to know she was joyous, she was funny, she was vibrant, she was loving and she was loved. She was indomitable. It’s a terrible insult to who and how she was that she died despite being so very full of life. JD Disalvatore was only 51—cheated of decades she deserved to have. But did she ever live those years.
Rent one of her films. Raise a glass to her. Take a walk to a shelter. Get a dog and name it JD. Support that legacy she hoped to leave.