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Lance Bass: I'm Gay

07/26/2006 at 08:30 AM EDT

Lance Bass: I'm Gay
Lance Bass
Wireimage
Lance Bass, the former 'N Sync heartthrob, reveals that he is gay in an exclusive interview with PEOPLE.

"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.

Lance Bass: I'm Gay| Lance Bass

"He took years to really think about how he was going to tell everyone," says his close buddy Fatone, 29, who was the first 'N Sync bandmate to find out Bass is gay. "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, 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."

Lance Bass: I'm Gay| Lance Bass

Timberlake, Kirkpatrick, Fatone, Bass and Chasez in 1997

Andre Csillag / REX

As for why he's talking about this now, Bass says, "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."

For the full Q&A with Lance Bass, pick up PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday.

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