Today is National Coming Out Day, a day each year that celebrates coming out as Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender.  The origins of NCOD started on Oct. 11, 1987, when half a million people participated in a March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay rights.

As a young man growing up in a small town in rural Mississippi, I was too young to comprehend the significance of this event at that time. However, I did understand that I was different than many of my peers, and unless I could somehow change, there were troubling times ahead.

In fact, there were many difficult days – and even months – as I struggled during my own coming out process.  I knew I was gay at an early age, but it would be years before I had the courage to come out to my family and friends.  But I maintained hope that things would get better and I recall clearly some of the milestones when I knew better days were ahead.  One of those is when I joined Coca-Cola in December 1998.

I was thrilled for the opportunity to work for one of the world’s most recognized brands.  In the first few months, I quickly found a network of other lesbian and gay co-workers, many of whom were out at work.  I witnessed these colleagues talk about their lives and shared their experiences with others while on the job.

On any given Friday, when the inevitable question of “got plans for the weekend?” would come up, I listened as these men and women talked openly and honestly about first dates, gatherings with family that included their boyfriends or girlfriends, and weekend getaways with their partners.   This network of LGBT colleagues and allies and a welcoming work environment gave me the courage to come out to my family and friends.  It wasn’t easy, but my family’s support grew over time.  And I was fortunate to work for a Company that continued to grow in its support of its LGBT employees.

I was proud to work for one of the first companies to publically support the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, legislation offered up in Congress to protect employees from discrimination due to sexual orientation. Coke included “sexual orientation” in its Equal Opportunity policy, began offering health and other benefits to spouses and same-sex partners of benefit-eligible U.S. employees, and established its first LGBT Employee Business Resource Group more than a decade ago. Coke also scored 100% on the Human Rights Campaign’s Corporate Equality Index in 2006 and each year since then.

I’ve been fortunate to be the beneficiary of many of these inclusive policies and initiatives.  I took advantage of the Coca-Cola’s adoption benefit when my partner and I adopted our son in 2006.  I was elected chair of the LGBT Employee Resource Group from 2007 – 2009 and had the opportunity to lead and be active in many of our Company-sponsored LGBT events and partnerships.

Marcus Wade and his son

Updated Pic: Marcus and his son at Coke headquarters in 2013.

Coke continues to live by its credo of being “as inclusive as our brands.”  In 2011, we added “gender identity or expression” to our Equal Opportunity policy and implemented Workplace Gender Transition Guidelines for U.S. based employees.  And earlier this year, Coca-Cola became a Gold-level National Corporate Sponsor of the Human Rights Campaign and a premier sponsor of NYC Pride, one of the largest Pride celebrations in the world.

On this day, as I reflect on my own journey of coming out, I’m fortunate to say that a company like Coca-Cola has been a big part of my support system. In many ways, it offered the kind of open and welcoming environment that I longed for in other parts of my life.  I’m fortunate to have many colleagues who are also good friends and allies and I’m encouraged by companies like Coke who continue to improve the lives of its LGBT employees.  It really does get better.

Marcus Wade is Vice President, Leadership and Internal Communications, Coca-Cola Refreshments

As a special addition – Many thanks to The Atlanta Gay Men’s Chorus and their Artistic Director, Kevin Robison, for allowing our team to post this brilliant performance of “It Gets Better” by Jay Kuo and Blair Shepard.