Deaths | News | Reddit | Tech

In His Short Life, Aaron Swartz Refused To Be Categorized


The New York Times today has a very detailed, very well-written and very touching obituary for Aaron Swartz, the master coder who invented RSS, forever changing the way we use the internet, and who took his own life on Friday.

Here is a snippet about the 26-year old's struggle with depression:

Recent years had been hard for Mr. Swartz, Ms. Norton said, and she characterized him "in turns tough and delicate." He had "struggled with chronic, painful illness as well as depression," she said, without specifying the illness, but he was still hopeful "at least about the world."

In a talk in 2007, Mr. Swartz described having had suicidal thoughts during a low period in his career. He also wrote about his struggle with depression, distinguishing it from sadness.

"Go outside and get some fresh air or cuddle with a loved one and you don’t feel any better, only more upset at being unable to feel the joy that everyone else seems to feel. Everything gets colored by the sadness."

When the condition gets worse, he wrote, "you feel as if streaks of pain are running through your head, you thrash your body, you search for some escape but find none. And this is one of the more moderate forms."

Also, some have wondered whether Mr. Swartz was gay. In fact, he was not. Not by his definition. While he did hook-up with men, Swartz refused to identify by a label he found to be completely fabricated. His sexual thinking was very much in line with his generation's.

From a piece he wrote in 2009; it's called "Why I Am Not Gay":

Having sex with other people of your gender isn't an identity, it's an act. And, like sex in general among consenting adults, people should be able to do it if they want to. Having sex with someone shouldn't require an identity crisis. (Nobody sees having-sex-with-white-people as part of their identity, even if that’s primarily who they’re attracted to.)

People shouldn't be forced to categorize themselves as "gay," "straight," or "bi." People are just people. Maybe you're mostly attracted to men. Maybe you're mostly attracted to women. Maybe you're attracted to everyone. These are historical claims — not future predictions.

If we truly want to expand the scope of human freedom, we should encourage people to date who they want; not just provide more categorical boxes for them to slot themselves into. A man who has mostly dated men should be just as welcome to date women as a woman who's mostly dated men.

So that's why I'm not gay. I hook up with people. I enjoy it. Sometimes they're men, sometimes they're women. I don't see why it needs to be any more complicated than that.

It is truly heartbreaking that someone so smart (clearly he was a genius), so motivated to justice and so young could not, would not or did not get the help that could have saved his life.

If you are someone you know is experiencing suicical ideation, call the National Suicide Prevention hotline at  1-800-273-8255, the national GLBT National Youth Talkline at 1-800-246-PRIDE (1-800-246-7743), or The Trevor Project, an organization specifically focused on LGBT people, at 866-488-7386.

Feed This post's comment feed


  1. So here we have him - or did (and I am sorry he's gone). A young man twice as smart as KIWI/Ehrenstein and all the others who think that being gay HAS to be the most important and endlessly trumpeted thing about oneself.

    No doubt young Mr. Swartz left us voluntarily because he was a "self-hating homosexual" who never contributed to the "gay community." How horribly depressing that must be. If he had kept a phone nearby with a direct link to a public address system so that he could have announced "today I'm straight" or "today I'm gay" and kept his boxes in a row he might still be with us in some happy category.

    But no, instead, as Belonsky says, "His sexual thinking was very much in line with his generation's."

    I'm sorry he's gone and taken his leadership with him. He had it right, just as his generation does.

    Posted by: UFFDA | Jan 13, 2013 10:16:34 AM

  2. Only gay people don't like "labels."

    Posted by: calvin | Jan 13, 2013 10:23:55 AM

  3. It is a shame that he killed himself. However, I do not believe that he is correct in saying that there is not a gay identity, that there are only sex acts with one of yor own sex. The "acts" theory was popular 150 years ago, and slowly was put aside. In doing so, gays have won their rights, come out of the closet, and are far more emotionally healthy. Aaron's sexual/emotional development was not up to his intellectual development, as is normal, since so much of emotional development is from maturity and experience.

    Posted by: Peter | Jan 13, 2013 10:27:57 AM

  4. Well, he certainly provided some fresh ammunition to those who say being gay is a choice!

    Posted by: K in VA | Jan 13, 2013 10:36:19 AM

  5. I echo Peter's sentiments. Sadness that we lost such a brilliant mind and sensitive soul, but not buying into his sexual philosophy 100%. Yes, his generation falls in and out of bed with both sexes much more fluidly than any before it. But that does not mean that orientation ceases to exist. And sexual orientation, in the end, is about who you can and cannot fall in love with, not who you make love with.

    Posted by: Arrant | Jan 13, 2013 10:38:15 AM

  6. LOL at Belonsky handing out Suicide Prevention hotlines.

    Posted by: Yupp | Jan 13, 2013 10:44:18 AM

  7. Yes, it's a shame Mr. Swartz killed himself, especially at 26. I like how he thought outside the box and I bet he'd have found even that hackneyed phrase tedious.

    We don't know what he was thinking when he decided to kill himself. I personally seriously doubt he did so because of any advocacy issues, but rather for deeply personal reasons. I think this is the case for 99% of suicides. There will always be people trying to find a big picture angle to satisfy their ideological narrative, but the real reason[s] probably revolved around human relationships, spirituality issues, emotional development, and brain hard-wiring. Not to gratuitously in anyway malign Mr. Swartz, but he even could have been under the negative influences drugs, street and/or script, or even alcohol. The whole thing is depressing in an of itself. Mr. Swartz aside from his serious issues regarding heath and federal prosecution, was in many ways a very lucky and privileged young man who had a lot more to live for than so many other human beings around the world.

    Posted by: ratbastard | Jan 13, 2013 10:44:49 AM

  8. I'm of the same generation he was, and maybe it's different in Europe but I don't "fall in and out of bed with both sexes." I like men, I AM GAY.
    I know very few people who claim to have sex with both sexes and they all look pretty damn gay to me.

    Posted by: calvin | Jan 13, 2013 10:46:00 AM

  9. "Aaron's sexual/emotional development was not up to his intellectual development, as is normal, since so much of emotional development is from maturity and experience."

    Peter - you summed it up brilliantly. The gay may have been a genius with his computers but he clearly had massive problems dealing with his sexuality. Sad.

    Posted by: Paul | Jan 13, 2013 10:48:18 AM

  10. I'm not criticizing Swartz (don't know enough about him) but if anybody older, more Republican, more religious, etc., said what he'd said about sexuality, we'd see more people on here screaming how "self-hating" he was for refusing to admit he was "gay".

    Posted by: Yupp | Jan 13, 2013 10:50:11 AM

  11. Friends, family, groups we join - they can all hold you up when you're falling or struggling and when you want to move forward in a new or different way, they can hold you back. We can be caged within their comfort-zone. He was someone who needed to move forward (as part of being exceptional). He would need to reject labels. More pedestrain people fight for labels because they would rather have the support they give.
    HuffPo notes that his family issued a letter blaming prosecutors for his suicide, a point that a number of important legal commentators have supported.

    Posted by: Markt | Jan 13, 2013 10:58:54 AM

  12. Sad, just plain sad that anyone would take their own life at such an early age. Brilliant or not we will never hear from him again.

    Posted by: Mike Ryan | Jan 13, 2013 11:11:17 AM

  13. He is not a scientist. Why should any one care what he says about sexuality. Aristotle was smart. That doesn't mean he was right. It is hard to debate anything when not even the question is clear. He defined sexuality just in terms of sexual acts, just as what Kinsey has done. The more relevant question would be : "Is there a gay gene?" which causes a person attracted to person of the same sex. Some scientist measured attraction by physical reactions like brain wave and pulse. It is more or less quantifiable. Scientists are not determining whether there is a "gay label". They are trying to establish a scientific fact.

    Posted by: simon | Jan 13, 2013 11:26:42 AM

  14. Heartbreaking the loss of yet another brilliant, young soul as his. But perplexing as well to read, "some have wondered whether Mr. Swartz was gay. In fact, he was not. Not by his definition. While he did hook-up with men, (!?) Swartz refused to identify by a label he found to be completely fabricated." If ever the old chestnut "You can run but you can't hide" seemed applicable, this would seem to be the exemplar. Who cares indeed if he slept with men, women, sheep or avocados? But for him to keep editorializing "I'm not gay, I'm not gay!" all the while continuing to sleep with men seems a bit outre' at the very least. Rest in peace, beautiful young man.

    Posted by: Bill | Jan 13, 2013 11:30:32 AM

  15. lol @simon's philosophy of science

    Posted by: Dan4444 | Jan 13, 2013 11:39:21 AM

  16. yes. to everything.

    keep your friends talking, so they don't resort to suicide, at best.

    i too blame a government, more keen on prosecuting progressive idealists than in spreading and sharing educational principles. knowledge is supposed to be free, not a revenue source. plain and simple.

    regardless, a great sadness has taken us over, all over again. when will it stop?

    Posted by: vwdavy | Jan 13, 2013 11:49:59 AM

  17. The fact is, it's always sad to lose someone with such accomplishment and potential at an early age.
    It is unfortunate that he and his family could not the attain the help necessary to prevent his suicide.
    However I wonder how cavalier he would have been with his sexual "fluidity" and identity had it not been for the accomplishments of those who have struggled for our rights in the past and continue to do so today.

    Posted by: Rob | Jan 13, 2013 12:01:30 PM

  18. All these comments are sensible if not superb. There's just no cornering the subject of sexuality and how to express it. All options are on the table...except apparently in France.

    Posted by: UFFDA | Jan 13, 2013 12:02:41 PM

  19. "While he did hook-up with men, Swartz refused to identify by a label he found to be completely fabricated."

    That was his main problem. Identity is fundamental human need. And therefore, a fundamental human right.

    Posted by: TheSeer | Jan 13, 2013 12:10:28 PM

  20. Uh... this generation is all about declaring your sexuality, proudly and openly.

    That's why our generation blew up Gay-Straight alliances in schools, cheer every other day when a celebrity comes out, are fighting for marriage equality... we're not 'don't categorize me' at all. We're not stuffy and self-limiting, but we see an chance to change society with our visibility and we're doing just that.

    It's like these holier-than-thou people who fuss and smugly proclaim they won't be vaccinating their children. Good for them... but don't be too smug when the reason you can take that chance is because we eradicated most of these disease thanks to decades of vaccinations.

    Posted by: John | Jan 13, 2013 12:20:11 PM

  21. It is everyone's right to reject the gay/straight dichotomy (or gay/straight/bi trichotmoy) of sexual identity. I also do not accept the metaphysical conceit that sexual orientation is an essential trait. At the same time, however, the terms "gay" and "straight" can also be descriptive terms that name different groups of men. In that sense, Mr. Schwartz was indeed gay. I admire his adamant resistance to the social presumptions that come with the labels - but in a world in which the dichotomy is not a socially equitable one, his denial can still sound a little like internalized homophobia.

    Posted by: kipp | Jan 13, 2013 12:43:18 PM

  22. There is a label for what he was. He was bisexual. Why is that such a hard label?

    Posted by: bravo | Jan 13, 2013 12:54:02 PM

  23. Actually he doesn't sound like one of "his generation" at all. Most of his contemporaries are perfectly happy to discover that they are gay or bisexual or straight and often are proud to wear that "label" as young as 12 or 13 years old. They don't feel the need to use tortured logic in order to avoid the truth.
    When I hear people like him and Gore Vidal, I can only think that they are still afraid or embarrassed to call themselves what they are.
    Some labels are just declarations of what we know as reality.
    it was somewhat understandable for someone as old as Gore Vidal but not so much with a young man today. Perhaps that is one of the reasons that he needed to escape his own unhappiness. You have to love yourself first.

    Posted by: StillMarriedinCA | Jan 13, 2013 1:02:34 PM

  24. Suicide is a horrible thing and we never truly know why some people choose it while others in similar positions do not. And sometimes the most genius among us are the most troubled. Being smart can sometimes be a curse.

    I don't mind if he didn't consider himself gay - it was his choice to decide to reject labels. Considering he didn't hide the fact he slept with men means his wasn't ashamed of his sexuality; he just didn't want to be put in a box over it.

    Posted by: KT | Jan 13, 2013 1:02:50 PM

  25. "It is everyone's right to reject the gay/straight dichotomy (or gay/straight/bi trichotmoy) of sexual identity."

    So it is everyone's right to reject that the Earth is billions of years old. Or that it is round. They do so at their own peril.

    "I also do not accept the metaphysical conceit that sexual orientation is an essential trait."
    It's not a metaphysical conceit. Would we say people being born red-headed is a "metaphysical conceit"?

    Look, he might have been so depressed he was bound to kill himself. Which still makes a tragedy he didn't get the treatment he needed. But embracing a false, politicized point of view about the reality of his sexuality did not help.
    BTW the two people I knew of in college who were considered "bisexual" at the time are now fully gay. As Calvin said, if you have enough interest in man on man sex to do in repeatedly when straight sex is just as easy to obtain, you're probably gay. Maybe there are people born truly without a preference, but they are rare as hen's teeth. I highly, highly doubt Swartz was one of them. As I commented previously, if he was he probably wouldn't have bothered to write a poorly reasoned essay about his sexuality.

    Posted by: EchtKultig | Jan 13, 2013 1:07:08 PM

  26. 1 2 3 »

Post a comment


« «Anti-Gay Maryland Lawmaker: Gay Marriage Vote Made Me Drink« «