Actor Alan Cumming returns OBE for British Empire's 'toxicity'

Monday, January 30, 2023

Cumming at New York Fashion Week on February 11, 2011.
Image: Christopher Macsurak.

On Friday, Scottish theatre and film actor and producer Alan Cumming said how "the British Empire profited at the expense (and death) of indigenous peoples around the world" affected his decision to return the OBE he received in 2009.

For his 58th birthday, the two-time Tony awardee announced on Instagram "the misgivings I have being associated with the toxicity of empire" outweighed the "great good" his receiving of the order represented for the LGBT community.

Cumming was bestowed the chivalric honour, which stands for 'Order of the British Empire', as part of Queen Elizabeth II's Birthday Honours for his work as an actor and activist "for equal rights for the gay and lesbian community".

Made a US citizen in 2008, Cumming was an outspoken critic of the since-repealed Defense of Marriage Act that forbade federal recognition of same-sex marriage, and the 'don't ask, don't tell' policy that prevented openly LGBT individuals from serving in the US Armed Forces.

At the time, he said: "I see this honour as encouragement to go on fighting for what I believe is right and for what I take for granted as a UK citizen. Thank you to the Queen and those who make up her birthday honours list for bringing attention to the inaction of the US government on this issue. It makes me very proud to be British, and galvanised as an American."

However, the laws' repeal and "conversations about the role of the monarchy" and legacy of British colonialism begun after Elizabeth II's death in September convinced him "the great good the award brought to the LGBTQ+ cause back in 2009 is now less potent than the misgivings I have being associated with the toxicity of empire."

In the past, other celebrities have returned OBEs in protest of social issues: in 2020, Welsh actor Michael Sheen announced he returned his received in 2009 over the "tortured history" between Wales and the UK. Musician John Lennon returned his lesser MBE in 1969 over the UK's involvement in the Nigerian Civil War and support for the US in Vietnam.

Cumming's film credits include GoldenEye and the Spy Kids trilogy. He received his Tony Awards for producing the musical A Strange Loop (2022) and appearing in Cabaret (1998).

In 2019, he expressed his pride in his work on the television series Instinct where he was in the star role of the first US network drama to have a gay lead character. Posting on Instagram, he remembered the show, which was cancelled after two series, for being where "millions of people will have seen a same-sex marriage portrayed for the first time".