"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, referring to bandmates Joey Fatone, Chris Kirkpatrick, JC Chasez and Justin Timberlake.
"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," he says speaking about his sexual orientation for the first time with PEOPLE.
Now, after years of keeping his personal life private, the Mississippi-bred, Southern Baptist-reared Bass, 27, is publicly revealing what he first shared with his friends, then his shocked family.
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, 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, 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."
Andre Csillag / REX
For the full Q&A with Lance Bass, pick up PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday.