"During an Anthony Robbins seminar, I realized I had an incredible story that could possibly help someone's son or daughter or grandchild's life not be as difficult as mine has been," he tells PEOPLE. "Maybe they wouldn't have to go through as much pain and suffering. It's time to tell my truth."
That "truth" is about a part of himself he has kept secret for his entire career: "I'm an out, proud and happy gay man," the Nashville artist revealed to PEOPLE during a sit-down in New York Tuesday. (Herndon appears on Entertainment Tonight Thursday at 7 p.m. ET, his first TV interview about his journey.)
The revelation was many years in the making for the 52-year-old singer, who first wondered if he was gay when he was about 10 years old and then began coming out to close family members at 20.
"My mother probably knew I was gay before I did. I remember sitting down with her and having the conversation," recalls Herndon, noting his career path in country worried her. But, ultimately, "she was more concerned about me having a happy life. You have to be able to do that in your own skin, and [my family] has seen me struggle with being gay my whole career."
Some Early SnagsWhile his professional start was promising (he was earning steady airplay with hit singles including "What Mattered Most," "Living in a Moment" and "It Must Be Love"), the singer hit some snags along the way – including an indecent exposure charge for allegedly exposing himself to a police officer in 1995 (the charge was later dropped in a plea bargain) and subsequent time in rehab for drug addiction.
"I have made a lot of mistakes in my life. They've been my mistakes, and I own them," says Herndon, who was married to women twice before coming to terms with his sexuality. (He says both ex-wives knew he was gay.) "I've done a lot of work around forgiveness with people that I've hurt and people I've not been honest with because of my sexuality."
Herndon's revelation follows fellow country artist Chely Wright's coming out to PEOPLE in 2010.
Longtime PartnerWright, a close friend of his, played a big part in his coming out – as did his longtime partner, Matt. A mutual friend introduced the couple, and they spoke on the phone for six months before meeting. As a one-year anniversary and Christmas present, Matt brought them to that fateful Anthony Robbins seminar in 2009 that reminded him of his own struggle – and his wish to spare others that pain.
"I was 10, sitting in church and horrified that I might be a homosexual. Whatever that word meant, I knew that I probably was one," Herndon recalls. "And I know there's a lot of those kids still out there. Telling my story is an opportunity to help just one of them," says Herndon.
"They can be loved by God, they can be married one day, they can have a family, they can give their parents grandkids," Herndon adds. "And they're not broken, they're not sinners and they're perfectly beautiful."
Both the singer and his partner are practicing Christians, and Herndon says it's taken time to reconcile his faith with his sexuality. But he's getting there.
"I sit on the tailgate of my pickup truck, and I meditate, and I talk to God," he says. "That's really all I need to know. I have a connection to something bigger than myself, and no one's going to tell me that I can't have it. We get to choose who we love, and that includes God, and he loves us back."
Aside from religion, Herndon has had to redefine his place in another establishment: the country music community. As he sees it, the genre has made great strides, which was again demonstrated when Kacey Musgraves won top honors at the CMAs for her LGBT-approving hit "Follow Your Arrow."
"There's never been a song more affirmative of that in country music, and it's our CMA Song of the year," says Herndon, who "welled up in tears" during that moment.
"I felt so proud of my city. I hope that trend continues; I pray it does."
Upcoming PlansHerndon, who is in the midst of his return to the industry, clearly is part of that trend. Last year, he released the autobiographical Lies I Told Myself and he's been touring with fellow singers Jamie O'Neal and Andy Griggs. He plans to release a solo album next year.
Though he understands his revelation is a big one, he views it as a beautiful starting point for the next chapter of his life.
"[Being gay] is just an addendum. I'm a gay man, and I'm looking forward to living the rest of my life authentically and happy," Herndon says.
Now that he's out, there are a lot of uncertainties ahead, from how fans will react to where his career will go. But "I'm feeling very blessed," Herndon says.
"I just want to show up for the causes that I believe in. And be able to walk down the street and hold this man's hand that will be my husband one day, and I know we'll have kids one day," he adds.
"I'm still the same person. Fans just know a little more about me now."