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‘Happy Birthday to me!’: Alan Cumming hands back OBE

Scottish actor was given the honour at the Queen’s Birthday Honours in 2009

Isobel Lewis
Friday 27 January 2023 09:57 GMT
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Alan Cumming makes an entrance as King James in Doctor Who episode

Alan Cumming says he has handed back his OBE after a re-examination of the “toxicity” of the British empire.

The Scottish actor was awarded the honour in 2009 in the Queen’s birthday honours for his services to film, theatre and the arts, as well as his LGBT+ activism.

However, marking his 58th birthday on Friday (27 January), Cumming shared an Instagram post announcing that he had recently returned the honour.

“Today is my 58th birthday and I want to tell you about something I recently did for myself. I returned my OBE,” he wrote.

Cumming, who has US as well as British citizenship, explained that he’d received the honour for “activism for equal rights for the gay and lesbian community, USA” at a time when same-sex marriage was still illegal in the US and the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy was in place in the military.

After resharing the statement he gave at the time, in which he described how receiving the honour made him “very proud to be British, and galvanised as an American”, Cumming explained that recent public conversations about the monarchy and British empire had made him reconsider.

“The Queen’s death and the ensuing conversations about the role of monarchy and especially the way the British empire profited at the expense (and death) of indigenous peoples across the world really opened my eyes,” the 58-year-old said.

“Also, thankfully, times and laws in the US have changed, and 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 (OBE stands for Officer of the British Empire).”

He continued: “So I returned my award, explained my reasons and reiterated my great gratitude for being given it in the first place. I’m now back to being plain old Alan Cumming again. Happy birthday to me!”

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In the comments beneath his post, Cumming’s followers praised him for his stance.

“Please can I gift you the newly created title ‘Order of Being Excellent’?” one fan wrote. “In fact, let’s make it ‘Knight of Being Excellent’. Arise, Sir Alan.”

“I knew you were those special human beings that really are human and self-reflecting,” another commenter added.

One comment read: “What an amazing and powerful statement to make. I hope many will follow your lead and demur if offered an OBE or any similar award.”

Stage and screen actor Cumming announced that he has returned his OBE (Getty Images)

Cumming is not the first performer to return his OBE. In December 2020, Welsh actor Michael Sheen shared a statement revealing that he too had handed back his honour.

Sheen explained that he’d undertaken extensive research into Welsh history after he was asked to speak at the Learning and Work Institutes annual Raymond William Memorial Lecture in November 2017.

“I remember sitting there going, ‘Well I have a choice: I either don’t give this lecture and hold on to my OBE or I give this lecture and I have to give my OBE back,’” he said.

Sheen said that he’d quietly given the award back as he realised he would have been a “hypocrite” were he to keep it and still give the lecture about “the nature of the relationship between Wales and the British state, and the history of it”.

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