The 38-year-old shares his journey to fully coming to terms with his identity in a candid interview with PEOPLE this week.
Metaphorically dropping his “armor,” Perris tells PEOPLE that he never really felt he was living in the closet. “I never hid my life. I’ve always lived the way I wanted to; it’s just that I didn’t have the courage to talk about it publicly.”
But after 20 years in the public eye, he says he’s now ready to live his life openly and authentically. “I’m relieved, I’m happy, and I’m proud of myself that I’m able to do this.”
The Athens native says he knew he was gay from a young age, but for a kid growing up in the ‘80s and ‘90s, there was no positive representation of gay people in his world.
“I was raised in a society where you had no way of seeing the normality of a gay relationship,” Perris explains. “It was not on TV. It was not in the media. It was not a part of any discussion.”
All he knew about gay life was a sense of shame being attached to queer people.
Perris recalls hearing words like “tolerant” and “open-minded,” which he grew to hate. “I don’t want you to tolerate me,” he tells PEOPLE. “I want you to accept me because we’re 100 percent equal.”
And then, in 1998, pop superstar George Michael came out as gay.
“I was 15 years old at the time, and to me, that was like a revelation because I had never even thought that it was possible,” Perris explains.
“I didn’t know you could have a superstar who was an extremely talented and incredible artist and a beautiful man and everything and he was gay, and he was living a normal life.”
Even though the closet door was cracked open just a bit, like many LGBTQ people, it took Perris some time to come to terms with himself. Initially, he came out to friends in his late teens. And then, in his early 20s, he had ‘the talk’ with his family.
“There was a little bit of backlash, but everyone was fine, and they all accepted it,” he adds.
Still, having begun his professional singing career at 18, he was advised to not discuss his private life publicly: “It’ll destroy your career.”
Twenty years later, the stunningly good-looking singer has achieved true star status having released three full-length English language albums and filmed three PBS concert specials that have been seen by over 160 million people around the world.
Today, Perris proudly says, “I have nothing to hide.” And in coming out, he hopes to make a difference in other people’s lives.
“There’s a lot of people out there that don’t have that luxury,” says Perris. “Even today, being gay is a cause for death in so many parts of the world. I think that it’s my responsibility, as a human being but also as an artist and a public figure, to speak about this.”
It’s with that spirit of wanting to inspire and uplift that he approached creating his new album, No Armor. “I realized that the only music that I wanted to hear was the songs that shaped me, the songs that made me who I am.”
“For me, this is my healing album,” he adds.
The new collection, gorgeously arranged with Mediterranean instrumentation, includes songs ranging from Billie Eilish’s “My Future,” Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now,” ABBA’s “I Have a Dream” and “Somewhere” from West Side Story.
It’s Perris’s hope that sharing the new music as his authentic self will bring him “a step closer” to his fans. “That’s what I feel that this will be because they will have the full picture of who I am, free and completely open.”
“This is the final step to my emancipation; now I’m fully emancipated to be the man that I want to be.”
No Armor is available now for streaming and download on all major platforms.