"I've wanted to share this part of my life, but I now have gotten to the point where it just feels right," Alan tells PEOPLE exclusively of his decision to come out publicly

To country music fans, Cody Alan has always been a ball of sunshine. But for years, the seemingly happy-go-lucky CMT and iHeartRadio host suffered an identity crisis, holding onto a secret he’s finally ready to share — that he’s gay.

“Though my TV or my radio persona was always that of a happy guy, there was this underlying ache inside of me for years, so I decided either I was gonna do something about it, or I was gonna live with this layer of misery underneath that happy face on the TV,” Alan, 44, tells PEOPLE exclusively.

“Once I realized it was okay to accept the truth, that it wasn’t my choice,” he adds, “it was a lot easier to start figuring out where to go with my life next.”

Since having that epiphany, the CMT personality has spent years coming to terms with his sexuality. And today, “I feel comfortable enough with myself to share it,” Alan says.

“I’ve wanted to share this part of my life, but I now have gotten to the point where it just feels right, and I’m at peace with where I am enough to be able to express it.”

In a Thursday morning Instagram post, Alan offered a heartfelt letter to his fans and followers, opening up about his journey to self-acceptance.

“2017. As we start a new year, there is something I want to share with you. You see, I’m gay. This is not a choice I made, but something I’ve known about myself my whole life. Through life’s twists and turns, marriage, divorce, fatherhood, successes, failures – I’ve landed on this day, a day when I’m happier and healthier than I’ve ever been,” he wrote. “And I’m finally comfortable enough for everyone to know this truth about me. As we continue our journey, I hope this news won’t change how you see me. I’m still the same Cody I always was. You just know a little more about me now. My hope for the future is to live the most honest, authentic, loving, and open life possible. Here’s to being happy with yourself, no matter who you are, who you love, where you come from, or what cards life has dealt you.”

Credit: Courtesy CMT

Years of Internal Struggle

A South Carolina native, “I struggled with my sexuality starting at a very young age,” Alan says. “I remember having distinct feelings early in my life. I knew this about myself, and I had a really hard time dealing with it. I was so ashamed of who I was.”

While the consummate country music fan pursued his dreams in broadcast media as a young adult, he continued to suppress those feelings over the years, getting married at 24 and starting a family.

“I felt like getting married was what I was supposed to do,” Alan recalls. “It’s what everyone wanted me to do, and I felt, somehow, like maybe that’s what would make me straight — and obviously that’s not how it works! But I dreamed of that family, which I now have.”

Indeed, during their marriage, Alan and his wife welcomed a daughter and son, now 18 and 14. (To respect their privacy and safety, Alan asked that PEOPLE not name his ex-wife and kids.)

But despite starting the family he’d always dreamed of, Alan still felt incomplete.

“I expressed to [my wife] about 10 years ago that I had these feelings, that I knew this about myself, so we started on the road from there, like, ‘How do we deal with it?'” he says.

Alan decided he wouldn’t let their marriage continue.

“I couldn’t, in good conscience. It wasn’t fair to her,” he says. “Everyone needs to give 100 percent of their heart for a true, committed relationship. But ultimately, my ex and I knew there was no way that could ever happen.”

It was then that Alan began to reevaluate his life — and his happiness.

Credit: Courtesy CMT

The Road to Self-Acceptance

“I took very small steps to make my life better and get to the point where I could be happy,” Alan says.

Those steps included slowly coming out to his family and friends — and opening himself up to love.

“I started approaching my closest friends and family first and let them know that this is something that’s been a part of my life since I was a kid and that through all my decisions in my life, I’d come to a point where I felt really happy with where I was,” Alan says. “I wanted them to know where I’ve been and who I am.”

The positive reactions he received only buoyed his coming out journey.

“You realize very quickly that people are very loving and accepting and supportive,” Alan says. “And you feel like it’s good for you to share that most sincere truth about you.”

Even so, Alan says he was nervous about opening up about his sexuality with his kids.

“It was a while back, but I remember being scared, honestly, because it’s a big thing to share. But my son said, ‘You’re a great dad; it’s okay,'” he says. “To their generation, being gay is like your eye color — it’s just there — so they understood better than I thought.”

In addition to coming out in his private life, Alan began dating and has since found a partner, occupational therapist Michael Smith.

“He’s an amazing person — incredibly strong and confident and loving — and he’s really helped me face these battles,” Alan says. “He’s already battled so much of what I’ve been or am going through, so his strength has boosted my own confidence.”

Credit: Courtesy CMT

Happier Than Ever — and Ready to Make a Difference

Having arrived to a place of self-acceptance, Alan is enjoying a new normal in his family life.

“It’s awesome now because I have a partner, my ex has a boyfriend, and with our kids, we have this really beautiful, blended, loving, modern family that works for us,” he says. “My ex-wife is my greatest supporter; my kids are my greatest supporters!”

More fulfilled and now comfortable in his own skin, Alan is ready to share his whole self publicly, a move he hopes inspires others — just like he was inspired by fellow country stars Chely Wright and Ty Herndon, who were the first of the country genre to come out publicly in 2010 then 2014, respectively.

“I remember thinking how proud I was of both of them — how much courage that took for each of them to say they were gay and to share their lives with the world,” Alan says. “It did help me, because I think every voice that speaks up is one more voice that leads the next, and it’s great to celebrate this together. Wherever you come from, whoever you are, whatever cards you’ve been dealt: You can find the kind of love, peace and happiness in this life you deserve.”

Credit: Courtesy CMT

And while the country music community is typically seen as a conservative space, Alan says he’s felt nothing but welcome since he’s come out to the various A-listers he’s shared his sexuality with in recent years.

“Country music is so diverse and perhaps the most supportive music industry that exists,” he says. “My story’s very real, and that’s what country music is: I live a real life that’s had twists and turns, ups and downs, and it’s kind of a country song in and of itself!”

“Millions of radio listeners, television viewers and country music fans love and look up to Cody Alan,” says GLAAD’s Vice President of Programs Zeke Stokes. “And that’s exactly why Cody’s decision to come out matters — because visibility brings about acceptance. By sharing his story, Cody is helping listeners and fans get to know someone who shares their passion for country music and southern values, and who also happens to be gay. At a time when America can sometimes seem so divided, it’s the common ground we all share that brings us together, and that’s the power of sharing one’s story.”

Ready to be nothing but himself in both his private life and the public eye, Alan hopes his story motivates others to do the same.

“I would like to be a voice that can speak to people who are facing challenges that we all face, for struggles that we all come across, because we’re all going through something. To be able to say: There is life, and you can find it, and take steps to improve yourself based on what you know… If I could be someone who’s vocal about facing struggles and overcoming them, I’d like to be,” he says.

“Even if it’s just one person that hears it and says, ‘I like country music and maybe I’m not so different after all.’ There’s some person out there who’s loving country music and thinks they don’t fit in, and that’s not true: You do fit in here, and there’s a place for people who are different,” he adds.

“That diversity is what we should celebrate.”