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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. He certainly won't mind being categorized as "smart" or "good looking" and protested the "label". Somehow the word "gay" has a negative connotation in society. That's why people are subconsciously so defensive.

    Posted by: simon | Jan 13, 2013 6:38:55 PM

  2. @Peter:

    The fact that you can point to a date (even one as approximate as "150 years ago") is concession in and of itself that identity based on sexual orientation is a social construct as opposed to aspects of humanity that are innate.

    I concede that from a similar societal viewpoint that guys who take it up the butt are "not straight," but that's defining by negatives, and it's difficult to say what gay is in that realm other than to say what it's not.

    Posted by: Jerry | Jan 13, 2013 6:53:35 PM

  3. I have NEVER met a heterosexual man who rejected being called "straight". Not one. This is nothing new. Anyone who went to college at any time in history will remember the "artsy" non-conformist, wear black, go-against the grain crowd. They are usually 20 somethings who eschew l "labels" or "gender binary" blah blah. We ALL had them, no matter what decade you went to school.
    Eventually they realize that it's just a part of becoming gay and accepting it. Unfortunately this kid had other problems that he could not deal with. Although, there are MANY problems with the current state of gay identity (many, many). The truth is this kid was just gay, but had issues accepting it. Nothing new to see.

    Posted by: Marty | Jan 13, 2013 7:07:13 PM

  4. The fact remains that "fooling around with guys" could very well have landed him in jail or a mental institution just a few short decades ago. That's what the I-refuse-to-be-labeled types miss entirely.

    Being gay isn't that much to have in common with someone, just as heterosexuality isn't. The gay rights movement isn't unified by our shared love of Madonna, Lady Gaga, and tasteful knick-knacks.

    At some point the hysterical need to proclaim yourself "not like THOSE people" becomes protesting too much. Considering that gay people come from EVERY race, religion, and destination on the map, if you don't find anything in common with ANY of them that's your issue and no one else's. You aren't special because you don't fit in.

    Posted by: Caliban | Jan 13, 2013 7:12:54 PM

  5. to add to that Caliban, which you stated perfectly, their instance on not being "labeled" becomes a means to label them.

    just as the "i'm not one of those stereotypical gays!" gays are their very own and very specific stereotype.

    you cannot choose how others may choose to label or perceive you. you can simply choose not to care.

    the moment one gets their back up about "labels" they're simply showing, and apparently not realizing, that they still view themselves and their self-worth based on the perceptions of a third party; and not just any third-party - specifically one that holds onto negative stigmas attached to those "labels"

    Posted by: LittleKiwi | Jan 13, 2013 7:32:22 PM

  6. I know this gen wants badly to drop labels and love everyone like in the 60s, but being bisexual is not normal. Hetero normal. Homo normal. But wanting both isn't. Don't bother countering with elaborate prose or "scientific" studies that "prove" otherwise cause I don't buy it.

    Posted by: jackie | Jan 13, 2013 7:57:12 PM

  7. the good news - no bisexuals have to prove anything to folks like "jackie".

    that's the beauty of coming out, and no longer caring What Others Think - when you are empowered by who you are the comments and opinions of some meaningless ninny don't faze you one bit.

    Posted by: LittleKiwi | Jan 13, 2013 7:59:55 PM

  8. The odd thing about his piece about not categorizing his sexuality is that he in fact categorizes it in the end as "not gay." That is a label is much as "gay" is. Yet he didn't seem to understand that he was contradicting the rest of his essay in doing this.

    His thoughts on sexuality seem (to me) young and limited and formed in part by internalized homophobia, but the sad thing is that he got to a place where he didn't think life was worth living and therefore will never get to grow as a human or experience the kind of love that would make identity seem quite natural and simple.

    Posted by: Ernie | Jan 13, 2013 8:10:41 PM

  9. How is it 'internalized homophobia' if he has relationships with men and women and refuses to be called gay? He's not gay. He's bisexual.

    Posted by: bravo | Jan 13, 2013 8:16:34 PM

  10. an ugly side to all of this is that reddit is a cesspool for self-loathing homosexuals wallow in misery and shared-delusions together.

    Posted by: LittleKiwi | Jan 13, 2013 8:28:52 PM

  11. @Bravo: He didn't say, "I am bisexual." He said, "I'm not gay." He didn't choose to call himself "not straight" or "open" or "bisexual"--he chose "not gay." That suggests internalized homophobia to me, but who knows? If he had decided to keep living his thoughts on sexuality may have evolved over time, as his relationships and life evolved, or maybe they wouldn't have. Not for us to know.

    Posted by: Ernie | Jan 13, 2013 8:33:41 PM

  12. concur, Ernie.

    "not gay" - it's an identity hinging on telling everyone that you're not some other identity.

    it's the definition of living in fear and worry about What Others Think.

    "i can't tell you what i am, but i sure can tell you what i don't WANT to be...."

    Posted by: LittleKiwi | Jan 13, 2013 8:41:15 PM

  13. I we sure he committed suicide? Something does not seem right, especially if you read the parent's statement:

    "Aaron's death ... is the product of a criminal justice system rife with intimidation and prosecutorial overreach.'—Swartz family statement"

    Posted by: FunMe | Jan 14, 2013 12:57:00 AM

  14. @FunMe: He hanged himself. The police discovered the body. He left suicide notes. His friends aren't surprised. So I think it's safe to say that he killed himself.

    Posted by: Paul R | Jan 14, 2013 2:03:31 AM

  15. Aaron Swartz's description of depression is as concise a definition as could ever be given. It is just like that: even in the midst of all the good, that sadness just won't go away and it does colour everything gray.

    I know some here get upset whenever someone who is nominally "gay" questions why one must be identified by one's sexuality. Yet, perhaps it is a fair question.

    The ideal world would have no such identify crisis for anyone; that who you love or desire sexually is irrelevant to the overall perception of one's humanity.

    My sexuality is a small part of who I am, yet it is integral to who I am because, while sex might be viewed as a carnal act, it also an act that supremely expresses my love for another man. Since I feel most human when I can love or be loved whether it be sexually, emotionally or spiritually, then it is probably still necessary to identify myself as "gay".

    Otherwise, my humanity becomes lost in that sadness Mr. Swartz talked about. I become less than human, if not to myself, then to others. And that lifeless sense of gray then threatens to consume me.

    Posted by: jamal49 | Jan 14, 2013 2:48:57 AM

  16. I get his point. When we create categories of any type we create boundaries, unconsciously and unwillingly restricting our freedom. Besides his essay is very similar to how many Asians (ie, Japanese) view sexuality (Oriental wisdom).
    He was truly the king of freedom!

    Posted by: jj | Jan 14, 2013 6:36:12 AM

  17. Its extremely sad. So many things could have caused Aaron to end it. Each individually valid and some deeply personal. Logical mind. Emotional mess. Dead. Gay? Why the need to analyze and judge him? Its not going to bring him back.

    Posted by: mark | Jan 14, 2013 1:40:03 PM

  18. In response to Peter and others: Aaron did not state that a "gay identity" does not exist - he was reminding us that gay identity has a particular cultural history, and he was challenging the need for everyone to embrace that identity. That is a very different thing and does not necessarily take away from the meaning that others take from identifying as gay. At least, as someone who does identify as gay myself, I do not see anything wrong with Aaron's point - in fact, I think it is absolutely correct. This may even be especially true for those whose desires are not as locked in to one gender or another. Sexual orientation is not a "thing" that exists - it is a framework for describing patterns of identity, behavior and desires. It is subject to shifts over time and differences across cultures. That Aaron points this out is good news to me and shows what in my opinion is a positive shift because it seems to reflect the overall shift in cultural attitudes about same-sex behavior (by that I mean I think that gay identity is formed to some extent in reaction to the rigid norms of the cultural in which it exists - the less rigid those norms, the less rigid the identification. To me, that's a good thing).

    Posted by: Aaron | Jan 14, 2013 2:39:53 PM

  19. but Aaron, by his use of "not-gay" he proves your (and his?) statement wrong.

    his identity, and sense of identity and self, were still hinging on the perceptions of Others.

    Posted by: LittleKiwi | Jan 14, 2013 2:50:52 PM

  20. Alot of people don't contemplate suicide from know when you make a bad decision while you're angry? Suicide is sometimes like that except it happens when you're deeply upset and hopeless. I bet he didn't know he was gonna kill himself the night before he did it. So in case you are wondering "why he did that....?'' The answer is he probably doesn't know cause he wasn't thinking.

    Rest in peace brother.

    Posted by: Summer | Jan 14, 2013 4:52:57 PM

  21. Bottom line: he was acting like he was a member of Gore Vidal's generation rather than his own.

    He saw homosexuality as something to be avoided at all costs - no gay taint at all - to the point of rationalizing why he was 'not gay.'

    He wasn't bisexual... he was just 'not gay.'

    Pansexual? Nope, just 'not gay.'

    Someone of his generation - wanting to defy labels - would say, 'call me whatever you want, as long as you call me.' They wouldn't turn themselves into pretzels.

    Posted by: John | Jan 14, 2013 8:50:32 PM

  22. Depression is hard: sometimes there just isn't the 'right' treatment.

    Posted by: Ivona Poyntz | Jan 19, 2013 3:17:48 PM

  23. This is for-Calvin who said:
    "Only gay people don't like "labels."
    Posted by: calvin | Jan 13, 2013 10:23:55 AM

    The only thing I can say is this. You must live in some sort of self denied, already checked out library book of a world to think this way. Do you think heavy people like being called fat? Black people the N word? That is just to give the power of adjectives we call labels, a few references. There are literally hundreds upon hundreds. If you truly think the way you do, then it's probably true that you insult people every day all day and don't even think there is anything wrong with it. Please re-evaluate.

    And to those close to Aaron, my heart goes out to you.

    Posted by: Jonathan | Jan 26, 2013 8:50:55 AM

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