Courtesy Angie and Sandi Rice
July 19, 2016 02:20 PM

For more than five decades, Art Rice lived with a secret unknown to parents, schoolmates, Air Force comrades or family – she’s transgender.

But after years of struggling with her identity, the 54-year-old special needs schoolteacher from the conservative small town of Mountain Green, Utah, decided to transition.

After summoning the courage to tell her family, Art, now Angie, was surprised by the love and acceptance she received from her wife, her five children and her extended family. They inspired her to share her story – in the hope that others who feel conflicted about being transgender can find the same confidence to “accept who they are and be happy with their lives.”

“For years, I was completely ashamed and scared of what I thought I was, and I was terrified that anybody would find out,” Angie, a former Air Force helicopter pilot, tells PEOPLE. “I became an expert at hiding my feelings, even through 27 years of marriage. For the first time, I now feel alive. I now awake each morning, excited for the day. It’s an entirely different life for me.”

Angie’s wife, Sandi Rice, 53, a schoolteacher for visually-impaired children, says that although learning about Angie’s secret was difficult, she can’t imagine the outcome being different.

“At first, it really shook my identity,” Sandi tells PEOPLE. “I thought, ‘What does that make me?’ But I came to realize that it doesn’t change who you are at all. Love is bigger than gender. I learned just how much I can love a person, and how insignificant gender can be.”

Born and raised in a small Vermont town within minutes of artist Norman Rockwell’s studio, Angie was 8 when she first began to identify with being female.

“My mom had cut my little sister’s long hair off before she started preschool,” Angie tells PEOPLE, “and she braided it and put it in a special container in her bedroom. When nobody was home, I would go into my parents’ room and get that braid. I’d hold it to the back of my head, pin it with my baseball cap and stand there in front of the mirror. I was very afraid that anyone would find out.”

In high school, she says, she signed up to play almost every sport and was president of her church’s youth group, believing that if she didn’t keep busy, “People would be able to see inside of me and discover who I was. I became an expert at hiding my feelings.”

After graduating from the U.S. Air Force Academy in 1984, she flew as a helicopter pilot for 20 years, meeting Sandi while assigned to Hill Air Force Base in Clearfield, Utah.

“She was running a beauty college and I came in one night to learn how to cut hair,” Angie recalls. “I was a macho rescue helicopter pilot, so going to that beauty school was my way of acknowledging what I was trying to hide.”

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Married in 1988, the Rices raised five children and settled into a comfortable life in Mountain Green, pop. 2,300, with the primary focus of their lives revolving around their Mormon faith. After retiring from the military, Angie became a schoolteacher, and her fear of people discovering her hidden feelings intensified.

“I was afraid that if people found out, I’d be fired from my job,” she says. “I wore baggy man pants and shoes that were too big, thinking that would help hide who I was.”

Meanwhile, Sandi had her suspicions about the man she had married.

“I knew that there were gender issues even before our first son was born,” she tells PEOPLE. “Angie was playing with my makeup one day and asked if I’d put it on her just for fun. The next day when she asked to do it again, I wondered if it was my fault. Ultimately, I decided it wasn’t that big of a deal. It wasn’t hurting anybody.”

It wasn’t until Utah’s LGBT anti-discrimination bill went into effect in May 2015, that Angie finally felt comfortable revealing that she was transgender to Sandi, their children and her coworkers.

Everybody wept after hearing about the pain she had kept to herself for years, afraid of losing everyone and everything that she loved.

“I’d be proud to still grow up like you,” one of their sons, Jacob, told Angie. “Although it was hard, they realized that we’re all still a family,” Sandi tells PEOPLE. “We all decided to put our fears aside and live for today.”

Although parents and teachers at her school have been supportive, says Angie, some members of her Mormon congregation now shun her and Sandi, so they are now looking for new churches to attend.

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“I honor their freedom of religion, even though it hurts,” Angie tells PEOPLE, “but I ask them please not to act hateful toward me when they see me on the street or when I’m out with my family. Everybody’s dignity is worth the same. I don’t want any more than anybody else has.”

“I felt betrayed by our church,” adds Sandi, “but I did not feel betrayed by Angie. Our future looks a lot different now than when we got married, but we’ll figure it out. I can’t imagine living my life without her.”

Now undergoing hormone therapy, “I no longer feel trapped – I’ve broken out of that prison that held me captive my entire life,” Angie says. “I know it won’t be easy, but through love, we’ll find a way.”

Angie brushes away tears as she recalls the morning after she gathered her family around to deliver her life-changing news. “Sandi,” she told her wife, “this is the first time in my life when I put my head on my pillow and went to sleep peacefully. I think I experienced what it feels like to die.”

Sandi paused, then replied, “That’s not true, Angie. You’ve experienced what it feels like to be alive.”

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