11/09/2014 09:46 am ET Updated Feb 02, 2016

The Measure of a Man

Blake Little via Getty Images

Earlier this week, Tom Cruise, secured by little more than a harness to the outside of a military plane flying 5,000 feet above the UK, successfully completed one of the most dangerous stunts in filmmaking history. In case you missed the headlines, the death-defying act was captured for the latest installment of his Mission Impossible series; however, if you did manage to catch a few pics, you probably couldn't help but think to yourself, "Wow, that's freaking cool!" or, "Wow, that's freaking nuts!"

For me, the response was a mixture of both, because while the Pollyanna within commends the 52-year-old superstar for refusing to curtail his need for speed, and for showing the youngsters how it's done, the rest of me can't help but wonder, "Jeez, what lengths does a guy have to go to nowadays just to prove he's a man?"

Calm down. I realize that Cruise has always had a penchant for doing his own death-defying stunts. (In fact, just for this franchise alone, he's already scaled Dubai's Burj Khalifa.) And yes, I cannot stress enough how much I commend anyone who refuses to let their age define them. But as the last decade has seen the actor relinquish his gun-toting rebel image to the likes of Liam Neeson, you can't help but question his motives.

That's because even though Tom Cruise is still an undeniable box-office draw, the controversial superstar, with his disparate religious views and his seemingly "complicated" personal life, has been officially labeled as "different" in this country. And we all know that when you're a man in America, and different, you've most certainly got something to prove.

After all, used in this context, what it really means is "less than." And though the word is generally a pejorative lobbed at gays (among other choice phrases), don't get it twisted: Straight men are not immune. In fact, for the majority of this country, being perceived as anything other than the stoic soldier who loves a good bar fight almost as much as he loves his home sports team makes you "less than."

There are regional variations of this prized good ol' boy, of course -- in Jersey, a sexual swagger and a big chest denote the same type of machismo, while in Cali, it's all about a monster truck loaded with camp gear and some intimidatingly large dog by your side -- but regardless of the deviations, the same message comes across: Whether you're gay or straight, being a man is about how you carry yourself and what interests you, not necessarily what you stand for.

As a person who has struggled with this his entire life, I too am quite familiar with the unspoken law of the land. I spent my formative years faking interest in the trinity of bro sports -- football, baseball, basketball -- pretending Adam Sandler movies were funny and getting shot with a paintball was enjoyable. I've been in more fights than I can count (I lost most of them) and even have a tribal tattoo on my back. Basically, if you could have branded me with a label on my forehead that let the world know I was in fact manly, I would have begged you to do it. Though never once did I ask myself what being a man actually meant to me.

Years later, upon coming out, I thought, "At last, all of this posturing is over!" I was naïve. As a 20-something gay man living in San Francisco, I quickly learned that masculinity was measured by the length of your beard, the tightness of your military fade (my mom calls it the Cabbage Patch in honor of those iconic dolls and their adorable little tufts of top hair), and the ability of your wardrobe to be Yukon Trail-ready (sweatshirts, flannels, baseball hats).

Ironically, even as I joined my fellow queers to rally against patriarchal dominance and gun/good-ol'-boy culture throughout the country, I attacked the gym with my-life-depends-on-it zeal (steroids always on my mind), wore deodorant only when forced, and even -- for a little while -- used awful terms like "straight-acting" on my profiles.

Now I live in Los Angeles, and although the ethos is much different here (think muscle sports cars and "manly" style pieces like motorcycle jackets and skullcaps), the emphasis for both gay and straight "masculinity" remains on the superficial. Fortunately, though, I've since reached my early 30s, and unlike Mr. Cruise, I'm done hanging from the edge of a plane just to prove my manhood.

My grandfather used to say to me that a man does what he says he's gonna do. Sure, he traveled with Vitalis everywhere he went, refused to even boil an egg for himself, and referred to effeminate guys as "sissies," but underneath his struggles with the same culturally inflicted binding, my gramps was a smart, deeply intuitive man. He knew that at the end of the day, you can have a beard like a Lumberjack, swell your traps to the size of a gorilla's, and scream for a sports team as if all of time and space depend upon it, but none of it really means anything if your word is not bond.

Now, as I approach dating in this new age bracket, I find myself thinking a lot about his advice and about what being a man truly means to me. That's not to say that I still don't hit the gym hard or seek nice arms and a firm butt as much as the next guy. I've just recognize that after all the external theatrics, eventually my guy will have to climb back in from the ledge, and as we're seated comfortably side by side, I simply want to know he's gonna do what he says he will. For me, that's become the real measure of a man.