Local Obituaries

Director JD Disalvatore, a valiant voice for the LGBT community, dies at 51

JD Disalvatore was a prolific LGBT film and television producer, gay rights and animal activist. Her film “Shelter” topped many critics’ polls.
JD Disalvatore was a prolific LGBT film and television producer, gay rights and animal activist. Her film “Shelter” topped many critics’ polls. Courtesy Birgitte Gilliland

Award-winning LGBT film and TV director/producer JD Disalvatore graduated from Miami Palmetto High School in 1984, two years after Amazon founder Jeff Bezos.

One could say the filmmaker, whose 2007 movie “Shelter” won a GLAAD Media Award as best feature film in limited release, was upstaged by the billionaire entrepreneur. But not everyone would completely agree.

“I used to joke with JD that she was the one that would ultimately have a bigger positive impact on people’s lives. In reading all the emotional tributes people have shared about our JD, I dare say that may prove true,” said Birgitte Gilliland, her friend since those high school days.

Disalvatore, whose films include “A Marine Story,” and “Eating Out 2: Sloppy Seconds,” and who did visual effects work on the “The X-Files” movie in 1998 and the 1997 Pierce Brosnan thriller “Dante’s Peak,” died Aug. 24. She was 51.

“Cancer got a good ass kicking when it came looking for JD. She wanted to live so badly — she fought and fought and fought,” Gilliland said.

Disalvatore’s bold persona influenced the stories she chose to share in her films. As a director on “Gay Propaganda” in 2002, she recreated classic film scenes but with a queer revisionist bent.

“She involved everyone she knew in these films. To see ourselves in these roles was at first funny, but as the scenes played out they underlined a serious lack of LGBTQ representation in cinema,” writer/producer Allan Brocka wrote on the Boy Culture website.

The dead live on in the hearts and minds of the people that cared for them and JD’s huge activist heart and her indomitable, fighting spirit will not be forgotten. We will carry on all the good work she introduced us to.

Lawyer/stay-at-home mom, Birgitte Gilliland.

“Shelter,” a coming-out and falling-in-love tale between two Southern California surfers, avoided the genre cliche pitfalls, critics opined. In 2010, Disalvatore produced Ned Farr’s “A Marine Story,” which took on the U.S. military’s “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy on gay, lesbian and bisexual servicemen and women.

“She was so passionate about filmmaking and bringing LGBT stories to the big and small screen,” said casting director Tony Miros, who worked with Disalvatore on “Eating Out 2” and “A Marine Story.”

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 L.A., which she credited as having influenced her producing career.

“JD cultivated an LGBTQ film community in Hollywood with her Smoking Cocktail networking events. In a city where all of us hear no after no after no, the welcoming atmosphere of these mixers was a lifesaver,” said Brocka, who wrote and directed the movies “Boy Culture” and the first “Eating Out.”

She was born Julie Disalvatore in Plymouth, Massachusetts, on March 5, 1966, to a career Air Force father and artistically gifted mother and spent five years living in Belgium. JD, as she wanted to be known, moved to Miami in 1973. She remained through high school, returning to take a summer film program course at the University of Miami.

OBIT JD w Clinton
Sen. Hillary Clinton, then representing New York, meets with filmmaker JD Disalvatore on the 2008 campaign trail. “Sisterhood of the traveling pantsuits,” is how JD captioned the photo on Facebook. JD’s Facebook archives Courtesy Birgitte Gilliland

JD could mix with celebrities like Sen. Hillary Clinton on the campaign trail or “21 Jump Street” actor Jonah Hill just as easily as making a shy transfer student feel welcomed to Palmetto High in her sophomore year.

“I knew no one and was quite nervous about finding my way,” Gilliland recalled. “A sympathetic guidance counselor suggested I join the marching band in spite of my atrocious clarinet playing because, as she assured me, ‘Mr. Fetterman always needed bodies.’ One of the first people to greet me beyond the music room’s double doors was JD. With trumpet in hand, she instantly made me feel at ease and welcome. That was just her way.”

JD “knew all the truisms of adolescence,” Gilliland said. “She grew up in a self-described dysfunctional home and postulated that a rocky road traveled made one especially empathetic to misfits, outcasts or anyone struggling with self acceptance. And although we didn’t know it at the time, that included most of us in high school.”

Her three passions were music — in particular, show tunes — film and rescue dogs and cats, her survivors, sister Roanne and brother Carl, said.

“If you had four legs, JD had your back with a megaphone in hand,” her friend, writer/producer Jane Clark, wrote for her obit.

Aside from JD’s pride over “Shelter,” which topped Logo’s NewNextNow’s list of The 100 Greatest Gay Movies of All Time in 2012, her grandest achievements, she felt, were her work with The Point Foundation to mentor LGBT youth scholars and working with her animal shelter to make Los Angeles a “no-kill city.”

“I don’t consider myself a naive or unsophisticated person, but spending time with JD often left one with the feeling that you had just fallen off the back of the turnip truck, especially when she’d spot a celebrity,” Gilliland said. “Jonah Hill would be eating a burger near you or Jennifer Garner would be selecting lettuce over there and JD would casually point it out. Not because she gave a flying fart but because she didn’t want you to miss a single thing.

“JD’s depth and breadth of knowledge was dizzying,” Gilliland added. “She took it upon herself to school me in all the ways my education had been woefully neglected — from the Stonewall riots to juicing root vegetables so the final product didn’t taste like dirt. And she introduced me to so many things before they were hip or on anyone’s radar, like Ricky Gervais and ‘Downton Abbey.’”

Even as she fought breast cancer, JD’s resolve never flagged. “One time when I was visiting her, I overheard parts of an all-night phone call she had with a young gay man that was contemplating suicide. She was already sick and weak at the time so the marathon conversation exhausted her, but it was colossally important to her that this sacred person got to tell his whole life story and be assured that things would get better,” Gilliland said. “She. Never. Stopped.”

A memorial is being planned. Donations in Disalvatore’s honor can go to Outfest, Point Foundation and the East Valley Animal Shelter in Van Nuys, California.

Howard Cohen: 305-376-3619, @HowardCohen

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