From left: Jennifer Laude, Jzan Vern, Gretchen Diez.
Culture Spotlight

The Sam Morales story isn’t just a catfishing story—it’s a portrait of transphobia in the Philippines

It’s more than a true crime story for people to gape at. By JAM PASCUAL
| Apr 04 2020

The whole Twitter thread is a singularly harrowing thing to read, but here’s the No Fear Shakespeare version.

The story begins with Jzan (pronounced “jay-zan”) Tero, a Cebuana trans woman who matched on Tinder with a man who went by the name of Bill Iver Reyes. Most catfishing stories are dime a dozen on online dating apps, and Jzan knew this, but Bill had a way of thwarting Jzan’s suspicions: conversations moved to Viber, sweet nothings, promises of visits, even video calls. 

Even after a botched lie exposing Bill’s real name as Bilko Wagan Argana, the correspondence persisted. Eight months of cat-and-mouse would eventually lead to Bilko and Jzan finally meeting, with another party tagging along: a commercial director named Sam Morales, who persistently clung to Bill and Jzan. Who was this person who felt they had stock in this match?

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With some difficulty, Jzan and Bill were able to wrest from Sam some time alone. But something was wrong. Bill looked like he didn’t wanna be there. “I thought he was just teasing me,” Jzan says in the thread. “Pero ayaw talaga niya so I got annoyed but whatever. I’m gonna end this. This is not working anymore... fuck this. I lost myself because of this. UNTIL... he started fucking me?” 

After sex with disturbingly unclear terms of consent, Bill caved. “Masaya ka na?” before he fessed. “Wala naman talaga ako dito eh pero dinamay nila ako. Di naman kita kilala,” he said. “Si Sam... si Sam lahat.. hindi naman ako yung kausap mo. Si Sam…”

Photo from @JzanVern on Twitter

The person Jzan had been talking to on Viber? Sam. The person who orchestrated the match and calls, the one who sprung sudden video calls for Bilko to act in? Sam. Shortly after Jzan’s story came out, swaths of people came out with their own testimonies of Sam Morales’s history of manipulative behavior, and her pattern of deliberately targeting trans people to catfish and trick.

This story already seems to have come from ages hence, even though it’s only been a few days since Jzan put the thread out. Recently, the news cycle has been especially chaotic—even the most salacious of scandals are quickly drowned out by coronavirus-related reports, and stories of political ineptitude. Everyday, our memory for injustice is challenged.

But we shouldn’t forget this.

We shouldn’t forget Gretchen Diez, a trans woman who only wanted to enter the women’s restroom, but was dragged away to a Cubao police station, her personhood invalidated. We shouldn’t forget Jessa Remiendo, a trans woman whom her cis males murderers Isagani Dollaga and Michael Orpana hacked to death. And we shouldn’t forget Jennifer Laude. Her murderer was Private Joseph Scott Pemberton, who raised the flimsy, pathetic claim of having acted in self-defense, as if Laude's womanhood was a threat to him.

If you had any doubts about the social prejudice that trans women experience, those should be enough red flags for you.

Let’s disabuse ourselves of terrible takes, right now. It is disrespectful to describe Jzan’s catfish experience as a true crime documentary worth pitching to a boardroom of Netflix execs, as if her suffering fits the mold of spectacle. Jzan did not victimize herself or set herself up. And even though, according to Sam, a childhood of having been bullied by LGBT folks (at this point a highly contestable claim) molded her into the vengeful catfisher she is today, her hardships do not absolve her of the evils she committed. Let’s call a spade a spade: this was transphobia.

It is disrespectful to describe Jzan’s catfish experience as a true crime documentary worth pitching to a boardroom of Netflix execs, as if her suffering fits the mold of spectacle.

Far too often, issues of LGBT rights—especially trans rights—are trivialized, dismissed as insignificant compared to other social and political issues. Every transphobe deploys the same arguments. They say allowing trans people into the restrooms of their presented gender allow them to harrass cis people, when really, trans people are often the real victims of targeted harrassment. 

They say LGBT issues eclipse more pertinent problems like poverty and corruption, ignoring the fact that the mechanisms that perpetuate such injustices are the same mechanisms that mock and diminish trans peoples’ right to exist. 

Philippine media loves its drag queens and comedian crossdressers, as long as they’re making people laugh. But when the chips are down? Trans people are routinely disrespected, disparaged, disregarded. Remember Gretchen. Remember Jessa. Remember Jennifer.

Trans people are portrayed as deceivers, but Jzan was the one deceived. And what Sam Morales did was more than just a case of a twisted mind—it was an act of evil, born of systemic prejudice. I’ll even posit that Sam Morales’s manipulations were not an extreme case, but a typical story of transphobia that happened to receive more attention.

As is typical of Twitter’s knack for swift justice in the court of public opinion, Sam Morales was effectively cancelled. Hell hath no fury like a community scorned. But we can’t stop there. 

Almost by providence, Jzan’s story spread the night before International Transgender Visibility Day. To any ally reading this, you already know the score: we are called to continuously affirm and defend the existence of our trans brothers and sisters. Trans women are women. Trans men are men. And whoever contests these truths does what Sam did—they lie.