Considering how actors Alan Cumming and Saffron Burrows are probably best known today as entertainment icons in their own right — ones that also happen to be members of the LGBTQ+ community — it’s an interesting bit of dinner table trivia to bring up that for a time in the halcyon days of the ’90s, they were an item. While it’s hardly a surprise that Burrows and Cumming were a couple inasmuch that their sexualities are concerned — both have historically dated people of different genders before and after coming out — but because it happened so long ago in the scheme of the fleeting nature of pop culture dating history. Even more surprising in that context is that for a time, both U.K. celebrities were engaged before they went public with their LGBTQ+ identities.
So what’s the story behind Burrows’ previous romantic relationship with Cumming? Despite their former engagement, are they still in each other’s lives? And do their respective, subsequent long-term, same-gender relationships — and the ensuing commentary about them — speak to larger attitudes about bisexuality in the cultural mainstream? Read on to find out.
Alan Cumming and Saffron Burrows met in the early 1990s
First, the basics: Saffron Burrows and Alan Cumming met in the early ’90s while filming the 1995 movie The Circle of Friends, according to a February 2003 profile on Cumming published by The Guardian. Though it’s unclear how long the pair dated before their engagement, which ended sometime in 1996, the pair were seemingly betrothed for at least two years (via Famous Fix).
Speaking with The Guardian, Cumming referred to how his relationship with Saffron — which began after a previous eight-year marriage to a woman named Hilary Lyon ended — was a saving grace. “I was really lucky in that the first relationship I had after Hilary was with Saffron, who’s really… understanding and a broadminded person,” Cumming said at the time, later alluding that her open nature might have to do with the fact that she “bats for both teams,” like Cumming.
As The Guardian noted at the time, Cumming had been relatively open about his bisexuality for years prior to the 2003 interview, and had dated both men and women before his first marriage. While Burrows didn’t officially come out until much later, Cumming’s comment seemingly implied that Burrows’ queerness was an open secret among U.K. A-listers. It also appears that their shared queerness might have had something to do with how both maintained a different sort of relationship for years following their breakup.
Alan Cumming and Saffron Burrows' relationship remained positive
Since Alan Cumming and Saffron Burrows parted ways, it seems that they have maintained an amicable relationship, if not a close friendship. Cumming, who is also a published author, even interviewed Burrows for Interview magazine in 2015. Keeping that in mind, it’s also unsurprising that both have had similar approaches in how their bisexuality has also impacted their lives.
In the past, both have remarked that their relationships with members of the opposite gender did not erase their respective queer identities — and how in speaking publicly about these topics, they are able to provide bisexual representation within the mainstream. While discussing marriage prior to Hilary Lyon and his subsequent relationship to Burrows, Cumming told The Guardian in 2003 that his relationships with men did not lessen his relationships with women, nor vice versa. “It wasn’t like I stopped being married and said I was gay,” Cumming told the paper. “I was aware of that.”
In her own December 2014 interview with The Guardian, in which Burrows revealed that she had eloped with her longtime partner Alison Balian, the You actor said something along the same lines. “I think for a while I was just avoiding conversations, in order to not be labelled in some way that I felt was limiting and not actually true to who I am,” said Burrows. “I really salute these young women who come out, but if I said I was gay that wouldn’t be true.”
Alan Cumming and Saffron Burrows are big when it comes to bisexual representation
While it can be argued that attitudes towards the LGBTQ+ community have changed since Alan Cumming came out publicly 1998 as a bisexual man — and, more recently, when Saffron Burrows officially confirmed her bisexuality in 2013 after revealing her marriage to Alison Balian – biphobia is still an issue many bisexual people in the U.K. are forced to contend with.
According to a September 2020 report published by the non-profit Stonewall UK, roughly 20% of participants surveyed by the organization out of respondents who identify as bisexual stated that they are out to their family members. Only 42% answered that they are out at their place of employment, citing a “fear of discrimination” due to their sexual orientation. (Comparatively, 63% of respondents who identified as either gay or lesbian stated that they are out to their family members.) Per Stonewall UK, the reason is two-fold. “Bi people are often a forgotten part of the LGBT acronym and can face ‘double discrimination,'” the organization noted. “Not only do they face abuse from straight people, but also from lesbian and gay people.”
Speaking with the BBC in a 2018 interview, the non-profit’s former chief executive, Ruth Hunt, extrapolated on how biphobia within the LGBTQ+ community could manifest. “For men, it’s presumed they’re on their way to being gay,” Hunt said at the time. “And for women, it’s presumed that they’re trying it out.”
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