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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.

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  1. "I'm not gay" is the new closet.

    Posted by: David Ehrenstein | Jan 13, 2013 1:20:40 PM

  2. OK. Let's assume he's against labels and sleeps with humans no matter their gender.

    Why, in that case, was his post not titles WHY I AM NOT STRAIGHT?

    Posted by: KevinVT | Jan 13, 2013 1:28:47 PM

  3. I someone said about Gore Vidal, it's really the old closet. I think what you meant was "I have sex with men, and I'm not gay" is the new closet.

    Posted by: EchtKultig | Jan 13, 2013 1:30:03 PM


    Perhaps you've never hear of Miss Clairol? Hair color is not an essential trait of personal identity. Suggesting otherwise is a metaphysical absurdity, not a conceit.

    Sexual and emotional attractions are fluid. Our customs and social conventions do, in small and large ways, circumscribe how we act and feel. The attractions we turn into intimacies and the opportunities we are given to experience them are, in fact, influenced by the vagaries of the world. It may offend the modern need for authenticity to accept that much of who each of us is could have been otherwise, but that doesn't make it any less so.

    I think it is a mistake to make the supposed essential nature of a single sexual orientation a major justification for sexual freedom. The equality of our emotional proclivities is an ethical claim that shouldn't need a biological substrate to be accpeted.

    As I said in my original response, however, labels can have practical value. I do call myself a gay man. I would have called Aaron Schwartz a gay man. It's still important, however, to be clear about what those statements do and don't mean.

    Posted by: kipp | Jan 13, 2013 1:52:31 PM

  5. I thinks it's a little misleading to state that "he wasn't gay" in the same way it would have been to state that "he wasn't straight" (for which he provides exactly as much evidence).
    I think the people who "don't like labels" say so almost invariably as a reaction to prejudice they'e encounteted and not because the labels themselves don't make sense.
    I am gay because the person I could fall on love with would overwhelmingly-likely be of the same sex, just as I am right-handed because I am overwhelmingly-likely to naturally favor my right hand for complex manual tasks.
    These labels are not defined by anything I actually DO. When I was a teen and was ONLY dating girls I was still gay amd when my right hand was in a cast when I had an injury, I was still right handed regardless of the fact I was picking up my soup spoon with my left hand.

    I always want to ask these "no labels" people whether they're right-handed, a lefty or ambidextrious. You never hear of anyone writing an article or announcing on TV that "I will not be defined by my hand orientation. I will eat and write with whichever hand I decide to." Why? I think it's just because that prejudice is over. If lefties could be refused marriage rights and such, then we would be hearing numerous claims that "I can't be labeled."

    I don't know whether Schwartz was straight, bi, or gay, but I certainly don't think that not considering oneself to be in any of those categories is consistent with "his generation." In fact, there still seems to be an obsession over categorizing everybody.
    I long to see a future season of the Real World on MTV where a male housemate says "I've had relationships with guys snd girls" and I don't watch half of the housemates' mouths drop open and then tell the camera how "shocked" or surprised or uncomfortable they were or immediately demand a label category for him.
    We are definitely not there yet. I'm not offended by the labels themselves; I just wish the labels would no longer affect how well we are treated in society.

    Posted by: GregV | Jan 13, 2013 1:53:12 PM

  6. BTW - for people calling him a criminal:

    Posted by: EchtKultig | Jan 13, 2013 2:01:25 PM

  7. @Calvin,

    'European'? Which nationality/ethnicity? Because I've found many British and Irish men who refused the gay label and preferred to be called bi if anything. In fact, in my experience, I found this to be the case in the UK and Ireland [for example] more-so than the U.S. And in machismo cultures bi is definitely the preferred label over gay, in fact it's common for guys who 'top' to consider themselves str8!

    Anyway, Swartz was a free thinker. try it sometime, Calvin.

    Posted by: ratbastard | Jan 13, 2013 2:02:16 PM

  8. Perhaps his depression was brought on, or at least exacerbated by the fact that he was unable or unwilling, to define himself sexually. He was extremely intelligent yes, but he didn't have all of the answers.

    Posted by: Marc C | Jan 13, 2013 2:03:00 PM

  9. However gays and straights think about the importance of "gay identity" in the future (it will surely become less important as gays are assimilated in the culture as normal) it was absolutely necessary that gays saw themselves as gay and activists and forthright about their sexuality in the 1950s and 60s and 70s (and beyond) in order to CHANGE MINDS and LAWS. Sodomy (a technical word!) only officially became constitution here in the US in the 2003 SCOTUS case "Lawrence v. Texas". It was NECESSARY for decades of gay struggle and activism so that the current generation can now have the luxury of dropping the labels.

    Posted by: will | Jan 13, 2013 2:08:42 PM

  10. Kipp, congrats, I'm sure you were a great high school debater. You knew what I meant about hair color: anyone, including Miss Clairol was born with one that is genetically and developmentally determined. Ironically your obfuscation further debases your point: indeed, most people calling themselves "bisexual" do so for purely cosmetic reasons, just like a brown headed person wanting to be "Clairol Baby Blonde". (shout outs to St. Etienne haha)
    But I won't debate further: obviously people have to believe what they have to believe. Your viewpoint is an increasingly antiquated product of societal homophobia and will be a footnote in 20 years.

    Posted by: EchtKultig | Jan 13, 2013 2:09:43 PM

  11. "I will not be defined by my hand orientation. I will eat and write with whichever hand I decide to."

    LOL. So true, Greg V.

    Posted by: EchtKultig | Jan 13, 2013 2:11:02 PM

  12. I'll just be the prick: how did that "take" on "identity" for for ya?

    Posted by: LittleKiwi | Jan 13, 2013 2:34:46 PM

  13. the sad thing about his own failed "why we don't need labels" hypothesis is that he ignores the reality behind his aversion to labels: some of them still carry negative stigmas, while others don't.

    this is why you never hear straight people complaining about "how limiting it is to be labeled as straight."

    his death is a sad thing.

    also sad is the collective-poisoning in much of "reddit-culture" where enough people anonymously tell each other the same lies and start to believe that they're true.

    you're not free from labels by wanting to not be "gay" or "bi" - you're a slave to what the "non-gay" and "non-bi" people think about the labels that will be assigned to you.

    you can choose to care, or you can choose not to.

    but to pretend that you're just oh-so-enlightened and beyond labels makes you.......well, it makes you ME when i was 17 years old.

    and you wanna know something? it was b.s. when i said it 14 years ago it's b.s. when someone else says it today.

    Posted by: LittleKiwi | Jan 13, 2013 2:39:18 PM

  14. see also: "why do i need to Come Out? i doesn't matter!"

    if it didnt' matter one would be out. that they're not makes it very clear how much they DO think it matters, yet in a negative way.

    there's a certain thing that those who are Out and who are comfortable in their Gay identity have that those who aren't quite there yet would do well to notice.

    we've been where you are - you've not yet made it to where we are. rather than continuing to give excuses to lag behind, swallow your pride and realize that maybe those empowered folks who don't wallow in the "gay misery" that defines you may be on to something...

    Posted by: LittleKiwi | Jan 13, 2013 2:45:38 PM

  15. It's sad to hear of any life ending so soon...

    My 2 cents on a couple of points:

    1. Bully for him and others to feel they don't need to label themselves
    2. Boo on anyone who invalidates those who want to self label as gay and see it as a a large part of their identity
    3. Boo on young folks (and IMHO Aaron fits in here) who don't feel the need to label but don't realize the huge debt they owe to the folks who did self label for the past 60 years when it was extremely unpopular and sometimes dangerous to do so
    4. "Nobody sees having-sex-with-white-people as part of their identity" One who thinks that is a true statement has lived a sheltered life and has a very naive understanding of race in this country.

    Posted by: Anthony | Jan 13, 2013 3:04:16 PM

  16. People should remember that he was being targeted by a true menace to society in the form of US DA Carmen Ortiz for 20-30 YEARS in federal prison, over a completely victimless alleged crime. His prosecution, as I understand it, was basically imminent -- and his financial resources had dried up, because he shared his genius without greedily trying to maximize profits from it.

    This isn't a suicide like most suicides we've all grown accustom to reading Andy's site. This was a suicide brought on by a whackadoodle District Attorney pursuing an egregiously overzealous sentence, treating Aaron like some kind of terrorist.

    Facing 20-30 years in prison isn't an 'it gets better' scenario, it's a brutally harsh future that has more in common with a Soviet-era sentence to some gulag, rather than any kind act of justice, truth or reason.

    No one should blame Aaron Swartz for what he did. They should blame Carmen Ortiz.

    Here's a petition to ask for her removal from her post. This isn't the first time she's tried to ruin lives, just because she can, but it is the first time she's actually forced someone into suicide. Let's make sure it's the last.

    Posted by: Ryan | Jan 13, 2013 3:10:26 PM

  17. Anthony - the reality is that the people who still try to convince themselves (and others) of those particular lies all but prove themselves wrong. it's an impossible stance to take, because it hinges on ignoring reality.

    of course they hate labels. the labels that would be used on "them" are all, still, negative in the eyes of society. rather than grow a spine and embrace them, and change the stigma from negative to positive, they falsely pretend they're at some stage where it no longer matters.

    but if it doesn't matter one wouldnt' have made such a fuss being a contrarian who opposes them.

    something that you and I and every Out and Empowered LGBT person knows.

    others: feel free to catch up. it'll save you, you know.

    Posted by: LittleKiwi | Jan 13, 2013 3:12:47 PM

  18. But now he's going to be categorized as a quitter. Unfortunately. It pains me as someone with past suicide attempts to say that, but it's true.

    Posted by: NE1 | Jan 13, 2013 3:25:42 PM

  19. If only he HAD said "Why I am not straight," then I might buy it.

    Posted by: KevinVT | Jan 13, 2013 3:28:29 PM

  20. Why is his label not 'bisexual'? You can call yourself whatever you want, but if you are sexually attracted to men and women and have relationships with men and women, I don't care if you call yourself 'not straight', 'not gay', 'not labeled', 'not beholden to labels', you still are bisexual.

    Posted by: bravo | Jan 13, 2013 3:29:52 PM

  21. being attracted to both genders is called bisexual, and it's not a complicated thing at all. Sometimes labels are fine.

    Posted by: MDK | Jan 13, 2013 3:56:17 PM

  22. People who think identifying as gay or bisexual is "putting yourself in a box" or that it is a valid "choice" to reject what is a fact are exhibiting the same kinds of homophobia that we constantly fight against. It's several degrees more tolerant than the anti-gay crowd but it still smacks of ignorance and shame.

    Newsflash: Acknowledging the fact that you are gay does not put you into a box any more than would acknowledging you are straight. There are infinite varieties of people in both groups. And rejecting known science in order to create your own reality puts you in the same league as the climate change deniers and the religious radicals who think some magical being waved a wand and poofed the world into existence.

    Posted by: StillMarriedinCA | Jan 13, 2013 4:37:43 PM

  23. @KEVINVT, you summarize it perfectly.

    Posted by: calvin | Jan 13, 2013 4:43:07 PM

  24. I like labels. I'm a gay man. Not a man who happebs to be gay. I embrace my gayness. It is a major part of my identity and I would not be the amazing man - tooting my own horn! - that I am today were I not gay. I'm sorry that this young man took his life. I too have struggled with depression most of my life. Thankfully I'm still here.

    Posted by: Gigi | Jan 13, 2013 4:49:38 PM

  25. What's wrong with labels? It's who you are. That's not putting you in a box, that's living up to reality.

    And yes, if his piece is truthful, clearly he was bisexual.

    Posted by: Paul R | Jan 13, 2013 5:21:03 PM

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