He was "The Shy One." And during the bubblegum pop craze that began in the late '90s, Lance Bass—along with his 'N Sync bandmates Joey Fatone, Chris Kirkpatrick, JC Chasez and Justin Timberlake
—was a pinup boy for millions of adoring fans. But as the group rode the boy band wave—their 2000 smash, No Strings Attached
, sold a record-breaking 2.4 million copies in its first week—the Mississippi-bred, Southern Baptist-reared Bass felt burdened by hiding the truth he says he has known "from childhood on": He's gay. "I knew that I was in this popular band, and I had four other guys' careers in my hand, and I knew that if I ever acted on it or even said [that I was gay], it would overpower everything," says Bass, confident and relaxed as he spoke about his sexual orientation for the first time in an exclusive interview with PEOPLE's Marisa Laudadio. "I didn't know: Could that be the end of 'N Sync? So I had that weight on me of like, 'Wow, if I ever let anyone know, it's bad.' So I just never did."
Now, after years of keeping his personal life private, the 27-year-old Bass—the son of Diane, 55, a middle-school teacher, and Jim, 56, who works in real estate—is publicly revealing what he first shared with his friends, then his shocked family. "He took years to really think about how he was going to tell everyone," says his close buddy Fatone, 29. "I back him up 100 percent." Adds Bass's longtime pal, actress Christina Applegate
: "I've always accepted him as who he is. It's about his own serenity at this point."
Having pursued acting, producing and—most memorably—space flight after 'N Sync went on hiatus in 2002, Bass now is looking ahead to new beginnings. He is in a "very stable" relationship with model-actor-Amazing Race
winner Reichen Lehmkuhl, 32 (see box), and is developing an Odd Couple
-inspired sitcom pilot with Fatone in which his character will be gay. Mostly, though, he's just enjoying the relief that comes with the culmination of a long and at times emotionally fraught journey. "The thing is, I'm not ashamed—that's the one thing I want to say," he explains of his decision to come out. "I don't think it's wrong, I'm not devastated going through this. I'm more liberated and happy than I've been my whole life. I'm just happy."
When did you first know that you were gay?
I've known my whole life. In my head, I just knew I couldn't do it. You know, "That's just wrong, it's totally wrong." It's so strange because I always knew and dealt with it; it's nothing that was confusing to me. I told myself, "This is what you are. This is the way you were born." I definitely didn't ask to go through this, but I just knew it was something that I would have to hide my whole life.
Why come out now?
The main reason I wanted to speak my mind was that [the rumors] really were starting to affect my daily life. Now it feels like it's on my terms. I'm at peace with my family, my friends, myself and God, so there's really nothing else that I worry about.
Who was the first person you told?
I think a friend of mine might have just asked me. Very few people have the guts to come up to you and say, "Hey, are you gay?" I was 21. I always had relationships with girls until I was 22 or something like that, not too long ago.
Were you just more comfortable with women?
It was just the way it should have been. You know, I love women. I've definitely, you know, been with women. And I've had great relationships with them where I was definitely in love. It's just I grew to a point where deep inside I knew that I could never really truly have a relationship with a woman. I don't know if they ever suspected. It was never brought up. And it was so easy, especially being on the road, because you never got to spend much time together. It was like, "Yeah, that's my girlfriend. Whenever I get to see her, great. We date, we have fun. But I'm always on the road."
Did you tell your bandmates?
No, none of the guys. Some of the guys of course suspected because we were like brothers, so when you're with someone that much, they're like, "Why aren't you hitting on women all the time and acting like a rock star?" Because I was a good Christian boy, that's why.
Do all the guys now know?
Joey was the first to find out. I was at my house in Orlando like five years ago, and I was actually dating someone at the time—a guy—it was the first person I ever dated, which was very strange. I was just in my office and Joey walked in and kind of saw us way closer than friends would be, just standing really close. And he was like, "Oh, sorry!" I knew at that moment that he knew. I told him and he was like, "Dude, I don't care."
So did you reach out to the others?
Chris finally asked me last summer, and I just told JC three months ago. I'm pretty sure they all knew and they all probably talked to each other, but they had the respect to let me tell them. I haven't had the conversation with Justin yet. I know he knows but I've never really sat him down and said it. I will be calling him.
When did you tell your family?
It was very hard. It was something I'd been toying with for probably the last couple of years because I knew I wanted a closer relationship with my family. And for the last few years I was not that close with them just because of this one thing. They could never meet the people that I love. I have a sister [Stacy, 30]. I told her a year ago. I was at her house for Christmas. It was so hard because it took me forever to finally get it out. I finally blurted it. I'm like, "I'm gay." And she started laughing because she thought I was joking. And I was like, "I'm not kidding." And she went white. She immediately started crying and left, and I was like, "Great." She went downstairs, and my brother-in-law, who is the biggest country boy, man of men, she went straight to him. And I was like, "I didn't want Ford to know!" He comes up with her and he was so collected. He goes, "I don't care." And my sister was like, "The only reason I'm crying is because I think it's going to kill our parents."
How did they react?
The worst part about it was my mom found out not from me. She found out on the Internet, and that's what just killed me. She'd read an article about the rumors and stuff and she Googled and found all these things. She went over to my sister's house and was like, "Is it true?" And my sister was like, "Yes, it is." And she broke down and it destroyed her for a little bit.
It really does hurt knowing that they're going to have to live with this back home [in Clinton, Miss.], in a place where it's not looked at very highly. Their biggest concern was the family. And they told their parents—both sets of grandparents are still alive. That's what I was really concerned about because they come from an older generation, Mississippi, Deep South. My mom was really going nuts having to tell them. So she told them last week. And I get a call from my Mimi, my grandma, my mom's mom. She was like, "You know what? I may not agree with it, but I love you just the same and you're welcome in my house anytime." They took it so well.
How about your dad?
His biggest concern was safety. Diseases and that type of stuff. It's so funny because the misconceptions that Middle America has, because they only see that on television. The first thing he went to was, "Well, you know, it's much easier for gay people to get AIDS. Statistics show these relationships don't last. You know it's not going to last." I was like, "Dad, wow!"
Did your mom ask you if you would still go to church?
Yeah, definitely. And I still go to church. I'm still Christian. I was not raised in a Christian church to hate people. I was taught to love people and accept people. I know what I believe.
Tell us about your current relationship.
I'm dating this person, which is very new and I'm loving it. I'm very busy and doing my thing and this is a huge turning point in my life and also in his life too. So we're just taking it one day at a time, and slow, and very supportive.
We're talking about Reichen Lehmkuhl, right?
Yes. [Laughs.] No one's stupid.
How did you meet?
We were friends first. We've been dating a few months. Actually, it's funny, he was my real estate agent. We met through that.
What do you want readers to take away from reading this?
I want people to take from this that being gay is a norm. That the stereotypes are out the window. Being who I am and living my life the last few years and not hiding it, I've met so many people like me that it's really encouraged me. I kind of call them the SAGs—the straight-acting gays. We're just normal, typical guys. I love to watch football and drink beer.
Do you see kids in your future?
Definitely. I'm a family guy, so I would love to have a family; I would love to find that perfect person to have a family with. There are so many kids out there that need to be adopted and need good homes. I definitely want to have my own but I also want to adopt for sure. I think it's very important to find these kids homes.
You seem very at peace.
I am. People always say, "Are you gay?" and I say, "No, I'm also gay." It's one of the many things that make up me. It's something I've dealt with for a very long time. I was in a boy band. I'm used to people talking about me. It's the people around me that I don't want it to affect. But just seeing how my family has reacted, and everyone else, it just makes me so happy.