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February 22, 2017 12:39 PM

The morning of her gender confirmation surgery, Ivory Aquino was at peace with the potentially fatal risks.

“I walked out on the balcony, looked out at the ocean and was at peace that I might not wake up,” Aquino, 39, says of her 2005 surgery in Thailand. “Because if it was my time to go, at least I’d go as a woman.”

But six hours later, “I woke up holding my mom’s hand and thought, ‘I can handle whatever life throws at me now because I’m a woman. I finally feel complete,’ ” says the actress, who stars in the upcoming ABC miniseries When We Rise as real-life transgender activist Cecilia Chung.

Born and raised in the Philippines, Aquino — the niece of her home country’s former president Corazon Aquino — first realized she was transgender at the age of 5.

In her mid-teens, she secretly began hormone therapy. She moved to the United States as an exchange student for her senior year of high school and began to fully dress as a female when she started an internship the summer after her freshman year at Berklee College of Music in Boston.

  • For more from Ivory Aquino, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday

“The Philippines is a really religious country, and I felt I had to hide my hormone therapy from even my family. But if I hadn’t started the therapy that young, there would have been irreversible changes to my body due to puberty and that could have been traumatic,” says Aquino. “But my family is actually so supportive. It meant so much to me that my mother came with me for my gender confirmation surgery and both my parents have always encouraged me to follow my dreams of becoming an actress.”

But Aquino herself had not always been as confident she could become a working actor. As she transitioned, she gave up on the dream because she didn’t feel there would ever be roles for transgender actresses.

But after her surgery — a procedure, she stresses, not all transgender people have to undergo to live complete lives as their authentic selves — at age 26, “my first thought was, ‘Now I can act!”

After walking in unannounced to a talent agency and asking for representation (“I didn’t know that’s not how it was supposed to be done”), Aquino began working as an actress and kept the fact that she’s transgender private. But after booking the role of Cecilia in Rise, she made the decision to publicly come out in January.

“Growing up, I didn’t see anyone like myself on TV, and I realized I have a responsibility to share my story,” she says. “I want to show trans kids that it’s possible for them to have full, meaningful lives doing what they love. I’m proof.”

When We Rise begins Monday at 9 p.m. ET on ABC.

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